MINNEAPOLIS -- Seeking clemency from an infuriated Tom Izzo, Michigan State guard Keith Appling walked toward the sideline with the perplexed look of a child whose plan to steal a cookie had ended with a broken jar.
With 6:23 to play in Michigan State’s 66-61 victory at Minnesota Wednesday night, Appling fouled Andre Hollins as he shot an off-balanced 3-pointer. The freshman hit all three of his free throws and extended Minnesota’s lead to seven points.
Izzo wanted an explanation.
He demanded more answers just two minutes later, when the guard hacked Julian Welch on a jump shot. Welch hit his free throws, too.
“I just asked him what he was doing. There was almost no excuse for it,” Izzo told ESPN.com after the game.
Appling chuckled when asked if Izzo’s plea was really that PG.
“I don’t even remember,” said Appling, who finished with 13 points and five assists.
Regardless, the sophomore didn’t let the mishaps -- he’d picked up a technical foul for hanging on the rim after a dunk in the second half -- linger in his psyche. Appling and the Spartans had a game to win.
And with 32.2 seconds on the game clock, Appling stepped to the charity stripe with a chance to give Michigan State its first lead since the start of the second half.
The same player who’d been responsible for five Gophers free throws due to silly fouls. The same player who’d drawn a technical foul. The same player whom Izzo had just scolded was in a position to redeem himself.
Appling made both free throws and Michigan State took the 60-58 lead. He added to Michigan State’s advantage with four more free throws in the final seconds. Austin Thornton added a pair, too, solidifying the final 66-61 tally and helping the Spartans escape the Barn with a win.
“I just had to keep it in the back of my mind that the game’s on the line and we want to win the Big Ten championship,” Appling said. “It starts here and I’ve gotta knock down free throws.”
Added Izzo: “To have enough courage to step up to the line after that and knock down free throws says a lot about him.”
So much is made of Michigan State’s physicality. But when that wasn’t enough against the Gophers, the Spartans relied on their intellect and poise, two key factors in their current standing as the Big Ten’s best team, down the stretch.
They didn’t care about the substandard effort that had plagued them most of the night (they were 9-for-25 from the field, 0-for-4 from beyond the arc in the second half). Or the perplexing first-half offense that allowed the Gophers to stay close (5-for-20 on 3-pointers, despite entering the game with a league-low 190 attempts).
They just knew that they needed a victory to stay on top of the Big Ten and maintain their position as a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
They committed one turnover after halftime. They forced four Gophers turnovers in the final 2:33 of the game. They ended the night on a 16-7 run.
The final two weeks of the regular season are one large minefield for the squads who’ve essentially secured March Madness invitations and a gold mine for the teams that haven’t.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi billed Wednesday’s matchup as a “win and they’re in” game for the Gophers. Minnesota played like a team convinced that its NCAA tournament dreams rested on its performance.
They outrebounded the Big Ten’s top rebounding team (31-22). They hit 50 percent of their shots in the first half. And for 18 minutes in the second half, they had a lead over the No. 6 Spartans.
“Boy, we sure did play undisciplined,” Izzo said after the game. “I feel very fortunate to win it.”
But the Spartans have Draymond Green, the Big Ten player of the year frontrunner who helped his young roster remain calm in a hostile environment. He also muscled his way to the rim for a game-tying bucket with 1:42 to play.
“At a point like that, I’m not kicking it out,” said Green, who scored 17 points, grabbed five rebounds, recorded five assists and finished with four steals. “Just gotta get a bucket some type of way or get fouled.”
It’s easy to look at Michigan State’s struggles against a 5-10 Big Ten team and question its postseason potential.
The Spartans, however, were mature enough to handle adversity against a desperate squad on the road. And with a few weeks remaining before Selection Sunday and so many teams fighting for NCAA tournament invites, that’s an accomplishment.
“There has been times where things weren’t going our way. And usually when you have an inexperienced team, they crack,” Green said. “And it’s my job and [Austin Thornton’s] job and [Derrick Nix’s] job, guys who’ve been there, to keep leading these guys and let them know how it has to be down the stretch. I think everybody was mentally tough. … Everything was mentally tough about this game and that’s how we were able to pull it out.”