CHICAGO -- Whenever Michigan State is involved in a scrap, its opponent usually leaves the arena with a black eye and bloodied lip. The Spartans, under Tom Izzo, tend to win the war of physicality regardless of the final score.
That’s their trademark, their badge.
But in their 59-56 win over Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament Friday at the United Center, they ran into a squad that delivered the first blow.
“You know, they just came out with a little more energy. It’s as simple as that,” said Keith Appling, who finished with 13 points in a win over an Iowa team that led by double digits at the break.
The Hawkeyes tussled as if their postseason depended on it because it did. They entered the game desperate for quality wins. And a loss against the Spartans, they clearly realized, would decrease their already slim chance of securing an at-large berth.
So they swarmed Appling. They put a body on Derrick Nix, who was so frustrated by the pressure at one point in the game that he drew a technical foul. Gary Harris, a potential lottery pick competing in front of multiple NBA scouts, seemed timid in the first half.
The Spartans went 8-for-30 and missed every 3-pointer they took (eight attempts) before halftime. Iowa entered the break up 30-20 after shooting 50 percent from the field.
The Hawkeyes' damage on Michigan State’s collective psyche was equally significant. The Spartans were on the canvas, mentally bruised and nearly defeated.
At halftime, however, Izzo didn’t throw a chair. He didn’t kick lockers or threaten to make players run until they puked. He just asked them whether they still had the desire to win.
“I just said, ‘Where are we going to go?’ So I just leaned up the wall and asked whoever wanted to talk, and that's when [Branden] Dawson said some things, and that's when Keith said some things and Nix said a few things,” Izzo said. “It was kind of an emotional, not a rah-rah or yelling emotional, just a down emotional thing.”
In that moment, Dawson thought about the last Big Ten tournament, in Indianapolis in 2012. The one he could only watch from a hospital bed as he recovered from surgery to repair a season-ending knee injury.
He had worked too hard to get healthy to leave Chicago -- his first conference tourney -- after just one game. His team had pushed itself too far in the course of six months to leave the United Center embarrassed.
“When we first got in [the locker room at halftime], a lot of guys were feeling sorry for themselves,” Dawson said. “Couple of guys had their heads down. Couple of the freshmen, couple of the other guys. ... I just told the guys we just need to pick it up, and we [weren’t] losing this game. I know they didn’t want to go home, and I definitely didn’t want to go home.”
Their renewed spirit emerged only in spurts in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Appling darted down the middle of the lane and elevated. Melsahn Basabe jumped and extended his arm.
But Appling kept climbing and completed one of the greatest dunks of the year with 16:59 to play. The dazzling slam cut Iowa’s lead to seven.
With 10:24 to go, however, the Hawkeyes had restored order after a Zach McCabe layup gave the them a 47-35 edge.
Izzo had already charged his team to dictate its own fate when he talked to it at halftime. So he observed as much as he coached when Iowa tried to extend its lead. He wanted to see whether the Spartans would fulfill their daily theme and “show up.”
“We rallied around each other, and we were able to pull it [off],” Nix said.
In a blur, the Spartans had responded to that halftime call. Although it took them 10 minutes, it wasn’t too late.
A 15-2 spurt turned their disappointing effort into an impressive rally that gave them a 50-49 lead with 4:10 to play. They extended the advantage to eight points with 1:54 on the game clock.
The Hawkeyes refused to concede, though. After a pair of free throws by McCabe, a 3-pointer by Aaron White and a Basabe layup -- Michigan State committed two turnovers in that stretch, too -- the Hawkeyes were down by only one point.
But Harris drew a foul and hit his two free throws.
There were still 29 seconds remaining. Iowa had time to overcome Michigan State’s 59-56 edge. But the Spartans forced the Hawkeyes into a pair of tough 3-pointers in the final seconds.
Payne (18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal) grabbed the rebound after Roy Devyn Marble’s turnaround 3-pointer on Iowa’s final possession clanged off the rim.
The Spartans’ victory secured a third meeting with Ohio State (1-1 in their two matchups this season) in Saturday’s semifinals.
After Friday’s win, Izzo said he hadn’t earned his salary that day. His team was lethargic and undisciplined. He blamed himself for that. He even admitted that he didn’t have any solutions for its challenges. But he trusted his players enough to let them solve their own problems.
“It was interesting for me because I had done that once in 2000 with [Mateen] Cleaves and [Morris] Peterson, and it was one of the better things I had done,” Izzo said. “Embarrassed to say I didn't have any answers at halftime, but I'm proud to say that I let them make the decision and maybe they grew up a little bit.”