March 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Spartans rediscover their edge when they needed it most

Keith Appling dunks over Iowa's Melsahn Basabe as MSU beats Iowa, 59-56 in the second round of the Big Ten tournament at Chicago's United Center. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)

Chicago -- In a turbulent Big Ten season, one thing hasn't changed. When the Spartans want to crank it up, oh my, they still know how to do it.

They turned from slumbering to snarling so suddenly Friday night, it's hard to know exactly what we saw. There were dunks, including an epic flush by Keith Appling. There were blocks, several thundering ones by Adreian Payne. And when the defensive fury was over, Iowa somehow countered with one of its own.

If you're confused, hey, join the party. The Spartans finally slapped on a bit of clarity, holding off the Hawkeyes 59-56 to advance to the Big Ten tournament semifinals today against Ohio State.

As expected, defense was the mantra in most of the games here Friday, graphically displayed. Michigan State still dials it up, and Michigan is still looking for it. The only other similarity between the Spartans and Wolverines was that both scored a meager 20 points in their first halves. With Michigan State trailing 30-20 after an awful half, Tom Izzo was silently fuming. And then he saw what he'd been craving to see.

Players stood up and demanded more of each other at halftime. Senior Derrick Nix got emotional. And Appling said they weren't going to lose the game, not like that. Izzo loves passionate statements. He loves them even more when they lead to passionate play.

"I challenged a few guys, said we're gonna have to grow up here, we're gonna have to figure it out," Izzo said. "You don't see me do it very often (let the players take over). I can't even tell you why I did. I think it was, if we don't learn this, we're not going anywhere in the NCAA Tournament anyway."

Erasing the erratic

There was a lot of ragged play but the Spartans finally smoothed it out, wiping out a 13-point second-half deficit despite a flurry of turnovers. Izzo didn't like much of the execution, but he certainly appreciated the sudden excitement. Payne was so dominant during one stretch, all Iowa could do was haplessly heave the ball as the shot clock expired. When Payne dropped in a rebound basket, Michigan State had a 57-49 lead with two minutes left -- and then nearly squandered it.

Payne finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and in the process, probably denied Iowa an NCAA bid. Almost as impressive, Appling and Gary Harris attacked down the stretch, and the poor Hawkeyes could do little about it.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery bemoaned the physical nature of the game, and it got testy at times with the referees. Nix drew a technical foul and bodies were flying. When that happens, it's almost always the way Michigan State likes it. Appling called it one of the most physical games he'd ever played in, which might explain the emphatic flourishes.

Nothing was more impressive than Appling's flying dunk early in the second half, which essentially announced the Spartans' arrival to the competition.

"That was the spark we needed," Payne said. "Coach always says, if the head dies, the body lies. Keith is our head, and he didn't die. He just kept on playing."

So did the Spartans, even after a half that Payne described as playing in quicksand. Uh, it wasn't quicksand, more like slowsand, and at least for Izzo, something important hung in the balance.

"I wasn't happy with the way we played, but I was happy that players started coaching the team, and that means they're taking some ownership," Izzo said. "It's taken a while, but if I get something out of this game, that's what I get out of it."

It's taken time

How long has he waited to see it?

"Thirty-two games. I'm serious."

Izzo always is hunting for a floor leader, and Appling has to be the guy, although Harris and backup Travis Trice have taken key turns. The Spartans have been searching for a consistent go-to guy, and there's no guarantee it ended here. The Buckeyes will be mighty tough today, as well.

But if the searching ends now for Appling, that's a very good sign.

"Keith is one of the toughest kids I have," Izzo said. "And I've said, if Keith isn't playing well, it's hard for us to be good. He doesn't have to be great, but he has to be pretty solid and steady."

As always, the Spartans lean heavily on their defense, a time-tested asset in the Tournament. They have several players to lean on too; they just have to figure out which ones. On this night, it was Payne, then Appling, then Harris. The list kept growing as the rally kept unfolding, and by the end, it was a thoroughly pleasing sight for the coach's sore eyes.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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