EAST LANSING, Mich. — Subtract the backcourt tandem of Keith Appling and Gary Harris, and Michigan State’s basketball team would have difficulty beating anybody in the Big Ten outside of Nebraska and Penn State.
With them, the Spartans are ranked 12th in the country and are just a half-game out of first place at 19-4 overall and 8-2 in the conference.
In Wednesday night’s 61-50 win over Minnesota, Harris played 36 minutes with a stiff back that had him laboring up and down the court.
Appling left the game writhing in pain from a dislocated shoulder, which he suffered with 1:17 remaining to play.
Coach Tom Izzo’s worst nightmare — losing both of his top scorers on a team with little depth at guard — came close to happening.
Then small forward Branden Dawson “tweaked” a right ankle that’s been troublesome, and power forward Adreian Payne got hit in the nose and had to leave until the bleeding stopped. Izzo thought Payne might have broken the nose, but Payne said it’s fine.
“I’m healthy,” Izzo joked after the game. “My wife’s healthy. Our trainer’s healthy. But other than that, we’ve got problems.”
Point guard Appling exited the basketball court looking like the Hunchback of Breslin Center. He shuffled off, bent over at the waist, with trainer Quinton Sawyer escorting him to the locker room.
“I was scared,” Appling said. “That was new to me, but right now I’m fine. I’ll probably be a little sore in the morning, but I’ll be OK.”
Appling said he won’t be getting a magnetic resonance imaging test, and will “definitely” play Saturday at Purdue.
“I was trying to get open and it (the shoulder) just popped out,” Appling said. “I grabbed (Minnesota guard) Joe Coleman’s arm and it was very painful, but it slid back in on its own. I wasn’t going to let them touch it because it was hurting too much.”
A smiling Appling returned to the bench in the final seconds to the applause of fans.
“I was happy as heck to see him,” Izzo said. “He had been screaming when it happened.”
Shooting guard Harris, who left the previous game against Illinois with back spasms, also had a scare. He drilled a 3-pointer from the corner, then fell backward onto the court early in the second half. He got up quickly, though, and trudged down court to play defense.
“Hitting the three helped me feel a little bit better,” Harris said. “I knew I had to get down and play defense. We don’t have time to take off, and we’ve got to be ready to play in West Lafayette, too.”
Harris scored a team-high 15 points, going 4-for-8 on three-pointers, and led the team with four assists.
“He couldn’t even run,” Izzo said. “His back was hurting him so much. Normally, I would take a kid out who is hurting, but it was a muscle and not skeletal.
“So it’s just a matter of whether or not you can deal with the pain. I kept asking him if he was good to go, and thankfully, he is smart enough to say yes because I don’t know what we would have done at that point.
“I’ll tell you something: That kid showed me some character and heart. That was a way more heroic effort than it looked because he was dragging his whole body.
“And Gary also hit a couple big shots. He’s got ice in his veins and is tough as nails in his heart. It’s one of the gutsier performances I’ve seen in my 30-year career (as an assistant and head coach at MSU).”
Harris, just a freshman, is hurting so much that Izzo doesn’t want him battling for rebounds.
I asked Harris if he was 70-percent, 80-percent or what?
“I don’t know what percentage I am,” Harris said. “I just know I felt good before this.”
His back “locks up” if he doesn’t keep in motion, so he rode a stationary bike at halftime. Adrenaline, Harris said, helps him get through it.
The good news is, he doesn’t have trouble getting comfortable enough to sleep and can still shoot.
“Gary’s a very tough kid,” Appling said.
Appling had 14 points, making 3 of 4 3-pointers, and chipped in three assists. He had only one turnover and made three steals.
“They certainly outplayed our back court,” Golden Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “That was the difference.”
Appling and Harris, gimpy and limping, found a way. .