EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Keith Appling bounced back from a poor performance when No. 13 Michigan State needed him most.
Appling led a pivotal run early in the second half and finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to help the short-handed Spartans beat Illinois 80-75 on Thursday night.
Michigan State (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) started the game without senior center Derrick Nix, finished it without sophomore guard Travis Trice and played much of the second half without freshman guard Gary Harris.
“We just had to pick it up and grind the game out without Gary and Travis,” Appling said.
The junior point guard was coming off a three-point, no-assist, five-foul performance Sunday in a five-point loss at No. 3 Indiana. Appling helped the Spartans score the first 14 points of the second half to take their first lead against Illinois.
“He was the best player on the floor,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He did a great job of making his teammates better.
“He has a swagger about him that ultimately gives them swagger and confidence.”
Nix didn’t start because Izzo said the captain missed one class and one meeting with a tutor. He entered the game midway through the first half and finished with eight points.
“Did that hurt my team? It did,” Izzo said. “It was a distraction.”
Trice, a key guard off the bench, was limited to 11 minutes in the first half because of a blow he took to the head on a shot attempt. Trice missed five games after breaking his nose and getting a concussion in the season-opening loss to Connecticut and Izzo said early reports on his latest head injury were not encouraging.
Harris, a starter, went to the locker room midway through the second half with back spasms and returned to the bench, but not the game.
“He couldn’t even walk so we couldn’t put him back in,” Izzo said. “That hurt us, we’re just not deep enough.”
Harris, who said he was OK, had 14 points and fellow freshman Denzel Valentine scored a career-high 14, Braden Dawson had 12 points and nine rebounds and Adreian Payne added eight points, including a dunk off an alley-oop pass with 1:45 left to put the Spartans up 72-67.
Appling’s spinning, scooping layup put them ahead by six points with 45 seconds remaining to essentially seal the victory that kept Michigan State undefeated at home this season.
The Fighting Illini (15-7, 2-6), who were ranked as high as No. 10, lost for the fifth time in six games. They had a chance to be the first team with four wins over currently ranked teams, but put themselves in a tough position for postseason play.
“Absolutely, our backs are against the wall,” Groce said. “Nobody is going to give you anything.”
Illinois started strong and responded to rallies with shots and stops in the first half. Michigan State played with a lot of energy in the second half. Appling alternated making shots and setting up teammates to score in helping turn a 10-point deficit into a 41-37 lead.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth and I didn’t like our response,” Groce said.
Tracy Abrams scored 16 points for Illinois, D.J. Richardson had 14, Brandon Paul 13 and reserve Myke Henry 11.
The Spartans led by eight points midway through the second half, but couldn’t put away a team that has been talented enough to beat some of the top teams in college basketball.
Illinois has beaten No. 7 Gonzaga by 11 points, No. 9 Butler by 17 and No. 11 Ohio State by 19 points. Since beating the Buckeyes on Jan. 5, the Illini lost lopsided games to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan with their only win during the slump coming against 11th-place Nebraska.
Making five 3-pointers and having only one turnover helped the Illini lead 37-27 at halftime.
After struggling to keep possession of the ball early in the second half against aggressive defense, Abrams made some 3-pointers to keep Illinois within a possession of tying the game, including one with 5:39 left that made the score 63-60.
Early in the game, the Spartans looked rusty playing after a three-day break and Illinois seemed fired up to play.
Michigan State got off to an awful start with four turnovers on its first four possessions, leading to the Illini taking an 8-0 lead.
The second half was much different thanks in large part to Appling who had five points and one assist in the first half.
“We just had to get back on the winning track,” Appling said. “My teammates and coaches have a lot of faith in me and put the ball in my hands.”
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