January 8, 2014 at 3:44 am

Bob Wojnowski

Character win hardly a showpiece, but hobbled Michigan State won't quibble

East Lansing — When it was over, the Spartans tried really hard to be happy. They’d just beaten one of the best teams in the country in a thriller, but it hurt too much to celebrate. Even the crowd couldn’t muster more glee, practically gasping before heading out into the bitter cold.

It’s impossible to easily describe what unfolded in the Breslin Center Tuesday night, as Michigan State squandered a 17-point lead, then rallied to beat Ohio State 72-68 in overtime. It was bizarre and brutal and occasionally brilliant, and I suspect Tom Izzo and the Spartans will feel better about it emotionally as soon as they feel better physically.

At times, this looked like the football clash, with bodies on the ground and grimaces everywhere. It was a lot of pain and a lot of (Adreian) Payne, and it ended with fair warning: When these Spartans are good, they’re really, really good, and when they’re not, ugh, look away.

Profound, I know. But trying to define them now does no good, because there was Adreian Payne limping around on a sore foot, not even expected to play. There was Keith Appling, cramping so badly he was guzzling water and Gatorade and getting massaged during timeouts.

Two-man show

Forget the massage, the message was better. If Michigan State’s seniors, Payne and Appling, can play like this when ailing, watch out. The problem is, the healthy guys didn’t add much, and it added up to a letdown that became a meltdown, that eventually became a big victory over the third-ranked Buckeyes.

“Some positives will come out of this, and I should be happier than I am,” Izzo said. “But I’m a big-picture guy, and you shouldn’t have those kind of letdowns.”

It took Izzo a while to calm down after this one, but all he had to do was look at Appling and Payne to feel better. Appling nailed a clutch 3-pointer with 29 seconds left in overtime, sealed it with three free throws and finished with 20 points. Payne had 18 points and a series of monster dunks as the Spartans seemed ready to turn the Rose Bowl celebration into a basketball afterglow.

They led 55-38 with 8:02 left, then stopped running their offense, started throwing the ball away and basically fell apart. Aaron Craft pushed it and the Buckeyes closed with a 20-3 rush. They even had a chance to win it at the end, but Appling recovered from his own turnover to make a defensive play on Shannon Scott’s attempted layup.

So the Spartans are 14-1, right up there with the 13-1 football team, which was honored with a stirring halftime ceremony. A month ago, Michigan State knocked off unbeaten Ohio State to clinch the Rose Bowl bid after wasting a 17-point lead. The basketball Spartans did it this time, although not as artistically or thoroughly, to cap one incredible week for the school.

Giddy times, right?

“We gotta take it for what it is,” Appling said, softly. “I’m pretty sure nobody is feeling great about it. We took a 20-point lead and had a chance to make a statement. It feels good to win, regardless.”

It will feel better, eventually. But with another key reserve, Travis Trice, out with the flu, the Spartans went from a blowout to gutting it out. Gary Harris, who has battled an ankle injury, played 42 minutes and ran out of gas. Branden Dawson didn’t do much and Denzel Valentine struggled mightily, which drew Izzo’s ire.

It was mostly on the seniors to assert themselves, and it’s reassuring they did. It’s disconcerting that nobody else could.

“You want to write a story, write it on Keith’s character and heart, because he sucked it up,” Izzo said. “We didn’t have anybody left out there.”

He’s hoping it was all about stamina from lingering ailments, because he couldn’t like the way the Spartans got outworked. Ohio State is a terrific team and can score in swarms, but it also dominated the boards, 42-28. Michigan State played classically suffocating defense for quite a while, right up until it hit the magical 17-point mark.

You won’t see many comebacks like that by a visitor to the Breslin Center, and it was stunning to watch. The Spartans are better than that, and by the end of the season, could be the best in the Big Ten, and might be the best in the country. Just don’t expect them to accept many plaudits for this one, although Appling and Payne certainly deserved them.

“We survived, and great teams survive,” Izzo said. “I think we’re a damn good team, but I don’t know where we are right now. I do know this — if we ever get everybody close to being healthy, we can be a great team.”

We saw some of that, and some of the other stuff, and plenty of stuff we almost never see. The next time the Spartans and Buckeyes collide, in any sport, maybe they should just meet in a back alley and hit each other until nobody can move. That’s pretty much what they just did, and say what you wish about the Spartans’ letdown, but at least they know how to finish off an ugly fight.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Michigan State's Adreian Payne (5) hits a big 3-pointer in overtime and moments later draws a charge to help Michigan State to a 72-68 win. / Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News