March 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

By speaking up, Michigan State shows moxie of championship contender

Michigan State's (from left) Denzel Valentine, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson huddle with less than 10 seconds left in Saturday's game against Harvard. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

Spokane, Wash. — Tom Izzo was screaming, as he often does. But this time, with Michigan State’s season hanging in the balance, his players had heard enough.

It was sophomore guard Denzel Valentine, Izzo’s captain-in-waiting, who spoke up first, his words echoed by others in the huddle.

“We just said, ‘Chill,’ you know?” shrugged Valentine, who lived to tell the story, just as his team survived to tell a few more, perhaps, outlasting a tenacious Harvard team in Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament game at Spokane Arena.

Valentine’s presence was just one more sign this Michigan State team, bound for the Sweet 16 in New York City this week, is beginning to find its voice. And for Izzo, who was livid with his team’s careless play at that moment, and specifically with senior Adreian Payne’s poor decision-making, this is sweet music, to be sure.

Confidence, leadership, and, yes, a little defiance. That’s the stuff that wins championships. And that’s the stuff that Izzo hopes will carry these Spartans through another weekend of March Madness.

It was enough to survive a scare Saturday, certainly, as Harvard erased a 16-point lead midway through the second half and had a sold-out crowd of 11,623 roaring in support of the well-heeled underdog.

The Spartans were still clinging to a two-point lead when Izzo let loose on Payne during a timeout. But that’s when Valentine asserted himself, calling for a truce and calling for Izzo to draw up a play to get the ball to Gary Harris, the Spartans’ somewhat-reluctant star.

“Coach, he’ll get intense, but then he trusts us enough and believes in us enough to listen to us,” Valentine explained. “Especially in a time like that.”

Harris did get the ball after the timeout, and he scored on that possession, though a charging call wiped out the basket. Harvard went on to tie the game, and later led briefly. But clutch three-point baskets from Harris (twice), Travis Trice and Valentine — Michigan State finally started executing in its half-court offense — eventually beat back the upset bid from Tommy Amaker’s team. The Spartans’ two seniors, Payne and Keith Appling, who’d struggled all night with frustration and foul trouble, helped seal the win at the free-throw line.

“I didn’t have any doubt at all,” said Harris, who finished with 18 points — 14 in the second half. “I could just tell by everybody’s body language that we were sticking together, we weren’t arguing. We knew that we were going to find a way to get it done.”

And they did. They usually do, too. Izzo’s teams are now 12-1 in the round of 32 and 19-3 in the second game of an NCAA weekend. The three losses, by the way, all came against No. 1 seeds.

But they know it gets harder from here. And the real question isn’t if the Spartans are a strong enough team to win the East Regional. At this point, with a healthy Branden Dawson playing an integral role again, it’s obvious they are.

“I don’t think we need to be stronger,” said Izzo, making his 12th trip to the Sweet 16 in 17 years. “We need to be smarter. We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch. So hopefully this will be a learning experience for us. And anytime you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson.”

There’ll be some value in the rest they’ll get now. The Big Ten tournament title provided a springboard for the Spartans, but it also meant playing five games in nine days, with a West Coast trip thrown in.

So Izzo planned to give his team a day off before getting back to the grind.

“We’ve still got to practice,” he said. “We’re still not in sync. We’re missing lobs, we’re missing out-of-bounds plays.”

They’re missing too many of their starters to foul trouble as well. In two games in Spokene, Michigan State was whistled for 47 personal fouls and watched its opponents shoot 69 free throws.

What they’re finding, though, is a little bit of that swagger that the coach knows they’ll need.

“We played good enough where you’d say, ‘That team is capable of getting to a Final Four,’ ” Izzo said. “We played bad enough where you’d say, ‘That team should’ve been out of the tournament.’ But remember, there’s a lot of teams saying that right now.”

And only 16 of them are still playing.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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