Auburn Hills — It might not have started exactly when Michigan State coach Tom Izzo expected, but after a shaky start, the Spartans eventually kicked it into high gear.
Behind 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds from senior center Derrick Nix, No. 3 Michigan State exploded midway through the first half Thursday on its way to a 65-54 victory over No. 14 Valparaiso in the NCAA Midwest Regional.
"I guess I was really pleased with about 33, 34 minutes of that game," Izzo said. "First couple were a little sluggish and the last five were a little disgusting. We didn't do a very good job of some things, but in between I thought we guarded. I thought Keith (Appling) ran it, we got the ball inside."
It was an early start at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and neither team was in much of a rhythm. That's when Izzo pulled Nix out and attempted to spark his team.
"In the first two or three minutes, I don't think we were nervous, we just didn't play very well," Izzo said. "That's when I took Derrick out and I said we've got to do a little more. I brought Gary (Harris) over and said, 'What are we doing?' Then we responded, got the ball inside and out and our defense got better. There was a seven-minute stretch where I don't think they had a good look."
What was an 8-8 game almost seven minutes in quickly became one-sided.
Michigan State (26-8) went on a 24-4 run to break the game open and advanced to face Memphis on Saturday for the right to reach the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. No. 6 Memphis defeated No. 11 Saint Mary's, 54-52.
"It feels good," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said. "We got sloppy at the end, but to be clicking for most of the game felt good and it's something we can build off of."
While Nix was dominating inside, Harris and Keith Appling were heating up from the perimeter. Appling scored 15 and Harris had 10, with six coming on a pair of 3-pointers during the first-half run.
Appling finished 6-for-12 and 3-for-5 from 3-point range, the second straight game he has shot well after struggling late. Harris wasn't as efficient, going 4-for-11, but Izzo has seen both putting in plenty of time to straighten out their game.
"Appling's been in there every day at 8 o'clock in the morning shooting," Izzo said. "He's worked his way out of his slump. He's done it the way you're supposed to do it.
"Both those guys do it, and Harris is going to be a special player. I mean, he guarded pretty well, too, and he can really make some shots."
While Michigan State was making shots, Valparaiso (26-8) was busy shooting 23.1 percent in the first half before a late second-half flurry allowed the Crusaders to finish 19-for-54, good for 35.2 percent.
"Michigan State is an excellent team, very physical," Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. "We knew we were going to have to rebound. We knew we were going to have to get back in transition, and we knew our margin was going to be small, that we were going to shoot the ball exceptionally well.
"I was very pleased with the looks that we got. I thought we got quality looks. And like we told our guys, sometimes we can't control shots going in."
Ben Boggs scored 15 to lead the Crusaders while Erik Buggs added 14 and Matt Kenney 10. Leading scorer Ryan Broekhoff was held to eight points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Izzo understood that despite how well his team played, he didn't believe the Spartans saw the best from the Crusaders.
"I don't know if it's stepping on anybody, but I thought we played awfully well," Izzo said. "They got us in one of our best games. I think we got one of them in their poor shooting games."
As quickly as Michigan State had dispatched Valparaiso, however, the attention quickly turned to an athletic Memphis.
"Hopefully this will give Nix a shot in the arm because I did get on him and he responded," Izzo said. "You just can't take your foot off the accelerator."