March 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

X-factor Branden Dawson helps Michigan State cross off Northwestern

Indianapolis — The halftime buzzer sounded, and Tom Izzo had a television interview to do before heading to the locker room with his team doubling up a doubled-over Northwestern squad.

But first Michigan State's coach had a message to deliver to one of his own, yelling to get the attention of Branden Dawson, who'd just settled for a jumper — and missed it — on the Spartans' final possession.

Asked later what that message was, Dawson smiled and replied: "Attack."

It was the same thing Dawson heard from his teammates all week back in East Lansing — "They've been telling me in practice, 'We need more out of you,'" Dawson said — and the same thing he read in a motivational text message from assistant coach Mike Garland earlier in the day.

Friday night, the Spartans' junior forward answered just the way they'd all hoped, sparking his team to a 67-51 rout of the Wildcats in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinal nightcap.

Dawson finished with a team-high 16 points and a game-high nine rebounds, adding a couple assists without a turnover or a foul in 28 minutes. But what he started could be something far more noteworthy, as the Spartans began their second season the way they started their first back in November, looking like a championship contender.

"It takes the pressure off us," teammate Denzel Valentine said of Dawson's breakout game. "When he's making those plays — slashing, getting those offensive rebounds and hitting those shots — we're a much better team. When he plays like that, we're a great team."

Good signs

It's only one night, obviously. And this was Northwestern — not a great team, or even a good one. But if it's a sign of things to come for Izzo's team, then maybe they really are capable of everything they'd originally thought, and continued to believe in spite of themselves.

Friday's game started a bit inauspiciously for the Spartans, with Adreian Payne calling for the ball in the post, quickly getting it, then kicking it back out to … Northwestern's Drew Crawford for a breakaway layup.

But the other early signs were more reassuring for a team that entered the postseason having lost seven of its last 12 and still searching an identity it lost sometime in mid-January.

Keith Appling attacked the basket without hesitation, and though he also did it without dribbling a couple times — still a no-no when you have the ball in your hands — it was still a welcome sight.

Valentine converted a three-point play, then set up Kenny Kaminski for a 3-pointer of his own, and three-goggled his way back to the towel-waving MSU bench as Northwestern called a timeout.

But it was Dawson's energetic play, with a pair of early buckets off offensive rebounds and even a rare jump shot that was the first of a few Friday night, that really seemed to set the tone. And reassure his coach.

Earlier in the week, Izzo openly admitted the Spartans' athletic X-factor was in need of a jump start. Dawson had played in just three games since missing more than a month with a broken hand, and he spent much of the last one — Sunday's loss at Ohio State — saddled with foul trouble in the bench.

"Branden is a creature of habit, like we all are," Izzo noted. "He came (to Michigan State) with bad habits and we adjusted some of those. But when you're off for five weeks there is always a tendency of reverting back to what you do and what you've done."

Well, yes, there is. But that's actually the hope here, too, for the Spartans. That they will revert back to what they do and what they've done, putting it all together at tournament time.

Bigger test awaits

Saturday’s semifinal against Wisconsin, which dismantled Minnesota in its quarterfinal matchup, figures to be a better divining rod.

"Are we making progress? Yeah, we are," Izzo said. "But tomorrow will be a good test to see where we are."

But for one night, at least, the smiles were back in the postgame locker room, and Dawson couldn't help but take a little credit for that.

"It's definitely important for us just to get this win tonight," he said. "And, you know, just to see us happy again as a team."

He was happy to see his jump shot fall Friday. His coach was, too.

"I told him God may have taken his hand away, but he gave him a jump shot," Izzo joked. "He's actually shooting the ball so much better since he's come back."

But, he continued, "Don't kid yourself: The difference in Brandon was his energy and his defense."

Indeed, he was a factor at both ends of the court, and on a night where Payne played just 19 minutes due to foul trouble, that was critical. Switching, talking, helping. Dawson was a difference-maker, without question.

"I think that was one of the best games Brandon has played here," Izzo said.

He's hoping to say that again — soon.

MSU's Branden Dawson scores against Northwestern's Alex Olah on Friday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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