November 24, 2013 at 2:17 am

John Niyo

Michigan State's victory over Oklahoma is no work of art, but a sign of the times

New York Tom Izzo called it a championship day.

And in his pregame speech to his team Saturday night here at the Barclays Center, Michigan States basketball coach urged his players to follow the MSU football teams lead.

Football did what they did, he told them. Let's go finish the job."

It took the top-ranked Spartans a while to get started in Saturdays championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn. But they finished, all right, led by Keith Applings career-high 27 points as they dispatched Oklahoma, 87-76, to win their first regular-season tournament title away from Breslin Center since 1998.

Im going to find a way to enjoy it tonight, Izzo said. Because we dont do this a lot. We dont win enough of them.

But for Izzo, this clearly was a difficult one to enjoy. And though he admits there were stretches during both games here where we were damn near great, there were stretches Saturday where the game was darn close to unwatchable.

Michigan State and Oklahoma slogged through what Izzo politely termed an ugly game that featured nearly as many fouls (49) as field goals (54) another example of what college basketballs rule changes have wrought.

On the chin

A crackdown on hand-checking and interior defense has been one of the major storylines in the first month of this season. But Saturday night mightve been the first real taste of it for the Spartans a combined 66 free-throw attempts in the game. And it left Izzo sounding more than a little bit bitter, though he was quick to blame himself for making his team too paranoid about fouling as well.

Its not about fouling out, said Izzo, who was forced to play some odd lineup combinations, thanks in part to early foul trouble for Adreian Payne and Appling. Its about how you play after you get your second one, or your third, for sure. Youre gonna play tentative.

Then again, his whole team played that way to start Saturdays game, and that had Izzo equally annoyed, if not more so.

Usually we do the punching, he said. But tonight we got punched. Almost KOd.

Oklahoma made 10 of its first 12 field goals, led by senior forward Cameron Clark, who hit his first seven shots and had outscored the Spartans by himself midway through the first half.

But Izzos team finally shook off the initial flurry Branden Dawsons defense and energy helped and as the Sooners finally started missing, the Spartans finally started running. Much like they had Friday night against Virginia Tech, the Spartans finished the half with a flourish, putting together a 21-2 run to lead by 14 at the break.

Forcing it

Unlike Fridays game, though, Oklahoma found a way to stay in the game. Lon Krugers team used a trapping press early in the second half to spark a run. And a lead that had ballooned to 18 at one point was pared to a 57-53 margin after a six-minute scoring drought for Michigan State. In that stretch the Spartans were 0-for-6 from the field, 0-for-4 from the free-throw line and committed six turnovers.

It didnt help that Gary Harris was sitting at the end of the bench dealing with leg cramps. But it also hurt that Appling was on the bench with three fouls.

And it was Applings return that eventually made the difference, as he scored seven straight points, including an end-to-end drive for a dunk in traffic, to help Michigan State build the lead back to 12. Hed do it again later after the Sooners cut that lead to four with 3:16 left.

At that point, Izzo had a message for his guard.

He just told me to go get the ball, Appling said.

Izzo explained it better, though.

I told Keith at the end there if he takes a jump shot Ill kill him, the coach said. I just wanted him to drive in the lane and get fouled.

It worked, as Michigan State made just two field goals the rest of the way, but managed to seal the win at the free-throw line.

"It was tough to play the way we wanted because of the way the game was being called," Appling said. "But I feel like we did a good job of adjusting at the end."

Hit somebody

They did, sure. But as Izzo noted sarcastically afterward, he's a bit jealous of his football counterpart, Mark Dantonio: "It must be nice to be in a sport where you can have a little contact.

What Im worried about is are we gonna teach Just dribble in and get fouled, he said. Is that good basketball? We had a 2-hour, 32-minute game last night. Is that good for basketball?

Probably not, though as with most cases of rule changes, coaches and players will adjust over time. Which Izzo says hes intent on doing.

He may not like it, he said, But Im gonna coach it this week.

Im gonna put football pads on again, and not to rebound, said Izzo, who used his football-style War Drill sessions in practice last week and promised more of the same.

Only itll be for offensive reasons now, he joked, to work on drawing contact and whistles on the way to the hoop.

Just go in there, fullback dive, three yards and a cloud of dust, Izzo continued, providing his own gridiron soundtrack. Bring Bo and Woody back.

Ready, set hike? Well, its still football season, I guess.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Michigan State's Branden Dawson and Oklahoma's Jordan Woodard fight for control of the ball during the second half. / Frank Franklin II / Associated Press