Column: In high-stakes game, Spartans were still aces

Michigan State's 71-69 OT win over Iowa personified heart

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IOWA CITY – That’s why they’re Michigan State and Iowa isn’t. Not yet.

The Spartans men’s basketball team gave a firm “Not so fast, my friend” to Iowa Tuesday night, as well as to Big Ten first-place Michigan.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, lost their third-straight one-score game to the conference’s roundball dynasty. You know what they say about teams that win the close games. And about the teams that don’t.

Sometimes, you simply have to tip your hat to the victor. Iowa was supposed to be the team with the wonderful, wear-you-down depth. But no Hawkeye did what junior Spartan guard Russell Byrd did in Michigan State’s 71-69 overtime win.

Byrd threw a dagger with 30 seconds left in OT, a 3-pointer for his first points of the game and a 70-64 MSU lead. It was the first time he scored more than two points in a contest since Dec. 17 against North Florida.

Iowa was the team with the great length. But long, tough Matt Costello was the best big man in this game, tossing in a career-high 11 points and collaring a career-best 12 rebounds in injured Adreian Payne’s absence.

The world was against Michigan State this night. The fouls were MSU 29, Iowa 19, the free throw tries Iowa 43, MSU 20. The decibel count in Carver-Hawkeye Arena hit levels that Spartans Coach Tom Izzo said reminded him of “Tom Davis days.”

“They got it going here,” Izzo said.

Just not enough. Not yet.

That isn’t a rip, just a fact illustrated by the final score. Nor was it a rip when Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, and emphasized, that his squad was done in by not having enough toughness this night.

He’s right, it didn’t. You don’t go 14 minutes and 50 seconds without a basket including the first 4:54 of overtime if you are the tougher team. If you’re tougher, you don’t make the same number of 3-pointers (three) as Spartan guard Keith Appling, who said three days earlier that he couldn’t shoot because of his banged-up, taped-up right wrist.

Iowa had a 57-51 lead with 5:58 left  in regulation and the roof ready to go flying off and the 15,400 fans prepared to levitate off into the frosty night. But Appling stuck a three, and a 7-0 MSU run was underway.

The Hawkeyes missed their chance to win at the end of regulation. They missed their chance to tie when Mike Gesell’s last-second shot off a drive hit backboard, but not rim. They missed their opportunity to get in the thick of the Big Ten title race.

Hey, Spartans happen.

If you can’t credit the Payne-less, Brendan Dawson-less visitors for never losing their cool and showing a roster-full of heart in this hothouse, you’re a hard, hard person. Heavens, Iowa was the first team to hold star MSU guard Gary Harris to single-digits in scoring, but other Spartans kept popping up to produce.

Depth matters when depth delivers. Otherwise, it’s just numbers. MSU's Travis Trice left the bench to swish three 3-pointers.

“There were times when we could’ve gotten flustered or broken down,” Trice said, “but we just fought through because this is what we do, this is what we’re used to.”

Byrd improved on his 0.7-point scoring average with his critical three.

“When he hit it I said ‘It’s meant to be,’” Izzo said. “I told him (earlier in the game) he was going to get a shot.”

McCaffery gave plenty of praise to the Spartans, noting “I’ve said it over and over, they’ve set the standard for so long.

“To consistently be challenging not only for the league championship, but the national championship, that is really hard to do.”

The former is done by winning on the road in totally unfriendly gyms on nights when it’s you against the world. The latter is done by going 10 weeks of conference battles and emerging tougher and hungrier than when you started.

And, oh, by also having brilliant talent. Costello, for instance, is no Payne. But he was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2012. Appling got the same award in the same state two years earlier.

But being talented doesn’t make you tough. On select occasions over the years, Izzo has used his “War Drill” in practice, with players wearing football helmets and shoulder pads. Call it a rebounding exercise.

Toughness is winning what McCaffery calls the 50/50 balls, long rebounds, loose balls, so forth. Toughness, he said, wasn’t part of Iowa’s makeup this night.

“I’d agree with that assessment,” said Hawkeye Aaron White, who got just four field goal attempts and made one. “We were 2 of 10 in 50/50 balls and got outrebounded in the second half. That’s toughness statistics.”

Tough is Michigan going to Michigan State last Saturday and winning to improve to 7-0 in the Big Ten. Tough is Michigan State snapping back at Iowa three nights later and winning to get to 8-1.

If Iowa is tough, it will come home from Illinois Saturday night with a victory and a 6-3 league mark.

“I wouldn’t say (Iowa’s title hope) is down the drain,” Hawkeye guard Devyn Marble said. “It didn’t help, of course.

“We’ll definitely get another crack at them. Maybe two.”

One of these times … but not yet.


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