EAST LANSING, Mich. — Most people call it crunch time, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo refers to it as “winning time.” You can crunch or be crunched, but there is no doubt about winning being what you want with the game on the line.
Izzo loves having point guard Keith Appling at such times. He scored six of his team-high 15 points in the final 41 seconds of Saturday night’s 59-56 win over No. 11 Ohio State.
“Appling, at winning time, has been as good as anyone,” Izzo said. “We just need him to do it earlier in the game.”
Appling, coming off four consecutive sub-par games against the Big Ten’s second-division teams, was scoreless until hitting a three-pointer with 6:33 to play in the first half.
The “winning time” compliment and his coach’s need for a 40-minute game were relayed to Appling in the postgame locker room.
“I just try to let the game come to me,” said Appling, who smiled while leaning forward in a chair. “I will not force it if it’s not there. But when it’s time to make plays, I’m going to make them.”
Appling also sparked the 67-64 win over No. 4 Kansas by scoring MSU’s last five points with a three-pointer and a driving layup with 14 seconds left. He hit all four free throws in the final 20 seconds of a 62-59 win at Iowa.
“Winning time” has been his time to shine.
But the gritty junior’s scoring average could be much better than his team-high 13.8 with better starts. He scored 16 of 19 against Kansas in the second half. Consistent scoring will be the difference between being good or great for Appling.
He explained why he was reluctant to shoot until late in the first half against the Buckeyes and point guard Aaron Craft.
“You’ve got to give credit to Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s defense,” Appling said. “They took away the gaps I’m used to seeing. But I like the challenge of playing Craft. I’m a competitive guy. And to be the best, you have got to beat the best.”
Craft, also a junior, was averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 assists coming into the game. He had five points and six assists against Appling.
“I think one of the biggest plays is when Aaron slipped and Appling got that layup there,” OSU coach Thad Matta said of the go-ahead basket with 41 seconds left. “…We couldn’t make the plays to capitalize on the momentum.”
It was a streaky game early, with the No. 18 Spartans taking a 10-0 lead and then going scoreless for 6:37 to fall behind, 17-13. But then Adreian Payne, Appling and Denzel Valentine each hit a three-pointer in a two-minute stretch. That was the first basket for Appling, who began asserting himself.
Getting off to a slow thing at home is one thing, but doing so on the road can bury a player and his team. The crowd — which was as loud as it’s been since last year at Breslin Center — gave the Spartans a boost.
“The crowd brought everything tonight,” Appling said. “It had not been that loud since the Indiana game last year.”
Appling had been faltering in the early stages of the Big Ten season, but he stepped up to seal a game OSU threatened to steal with forward Deshaun Thomas scoring 28 points. Izzo said he elected to hold down the other Buckeyes while keeping Thomas from an even higher point total, and the rest of the starting lineup scored just 15 points.
“Appling made some big plays when it counted and our defense was pretty good,” said Izzo.
Appling was coming off four consecutive games in which he had shot just 25 percent from the field and averaged only 9.5 points. But he made 6-of-13 from the field in this one to get back on track after taking just two shots in the first 13 minutes.
He has maintained the belief that he can hit shots when they matter most even on nights when they don’t drop early. That’s what scorer’s do.
“I’m a confident person,” Appling said. “That’s not something I’ve ever lacked.”