March 8, 2013 at 4:29 pm

John Niyo

An ugly win might be just what Michigan State needed

East Lansing — It was fitting that on a night where no one on the court seemed capable of making shots, Keith Appling would be the star.

Fitting, too, that the highlight of Michigan State's 58-43 victory over Wisconsin at the Breslin Center might've been a missed dunk and a horrific-looking fall by the Spartans' Adreian Payne.

Not just because the 7-foot center lived to laugh about it afterward, either. It was because of what happened immediately after Payne landed with a thud under the basket. Still on his aching back, Payne somehow scrambled to grab the loose ball for an offensive rebound, then quickly called timeout — a hustling, heads-up play that earned him a bear hug from his head coach, Tom Izzo, even before he'd reached the bench.

"He would've never done that as a freshman," Izzo said, nodding approvingly.

And on a night where Payne "couldn't buy a shot" — few could, actually — that kind of hustle was rewarded with the highest of compliments from his coach.

"That kind of reminded me of the teams I used to have," Izzo said.

This game kind of reminded everyone how ugly Big Ten basketball used to be. And in the end, maybe it was a game only Tom Izzo could truly love: A nationally televised "war drill" — more than twice as many rebounds (82) as made baskets (39) — that lasted the better part of 2 hours

It was a game that sent the fans home in need of an ice pack, and sent reporters scurrying to the record books in search of futility.

The last time a Wisconsin team shot this poorly from the field? You have go back 14 years almost to the day — March 4, 1999 — to find a bigger pile of bricks than this one. Bo Ryan's team shot just 29.4 percent (15-for-51) on Thursday, an effort that left both Izzo and Ryan scratching their heads afterward.

"Tom even said to me, 'Gosh, you guys got some good looks,'" Ryan said. "Yeah, well, we didn't hit them."

Well, no, they didn't. And, frankly, neither did the Spartans, who finished the night at a tepid 36.9 percent.

But you know what? This was exactly the kind of game the Spartans needed as they snapped a three-game losing streak and kept alive their hopes for a share of a fourth Big Ten title in five years.

"Offensively, we did not shoot the ball very well," Izzo agreed. "And yet, to win it that way, that's the way you've got to win it in tournaments. You've got to find a way to win, find a way to compete."

Thursday, they found a way, and they were led by the guy who's supposed to be their leader.

It was Appling, mired in a terrible shooting slump, who'd suggested earlier in the week the Badgers just might be the cure for what was ailing his game. "I don't know what it is," he said, but he'd played some of his best games in the Big Ten against Wisconsin, a team that generally brings out the worst in everyone.

And as ugly as this was initially, Appling was right, finishing with a game-high 19 points, nearly twice as many as the Badgers' leading scorer, Ben Brust (10 points) on Thursday night.

"Tonight might've been worth it for two reasons," Izzo said. "One, of course, is the win. And two, seeing Keith smile. I mean, that made my day."

One day does not a season make, of course. But for all the talk lately about what's wrong with the junior point guard — 3-for-29 from three-point range the last six games — and this Michigan State team, here they are, right back in the mix for a conference championship heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Thursday marked MSU's eighth consecutive win over Wisconsin in East Lansing, a streak dating back to 2004, and the fifth straight win for Izzo over Ryan, his old nemesis. But more important, the Spartans (23-7 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) joined Ohio State and Michigan in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten standings.

And how's this for strange bedfellows? The Spartans and the Buckeyes are left to root for the Wolverines on Sunday — assuming they can stomach it — as Michigan hosts Indiana in Ann Arbor.

To a man, the Spartans were all saying the same thing after Thursday night's win.

"The only team I root for is Michigan State," Appling said, repeating almost verbatim what Izzo had said at the podium a few minutes earlier, and what sophomore Travis Trice was saying a few feet away from him.

Still, a win for the Wolverines on Sunday would create an opportunity for as many as four teams to share the league crown. And if it's a four-way logjam at the top, it'd be the Spartans heading to Chicago as the No. 4 seed, with another dental appointment tentatively scheduled for Friday afternoon.

In that scenario, the Badgers likely would be the No. 5 seed, and barring a first-round upset by Penn State, we'd have another MSU-Wisconsin matchup in the quarterfinals.

So, cross your fingers, I guess. And maybe cover your eyes while you're at it.

The end may be in sight, but for the Spartans and the rest of the Big Ten's best — "To be honest with you, I don't know if it's enjoyment or relief," Izzo joked after Thursday's win — the fight is just beginning.

Keith Appling, right, enjoyed a big night Thursday after a tough stretch of games with 19 points in Michigan State's 58-43 victory. / Dale G. Young/Detroit News
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