Swingman Branden Dawson couldn’t carry Michigan State to victory on his shoulders, but his all-around play in a 66-62 loss to the University of Connecticut at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany was encouraging for a player coming off a nasty injury.
Dawson, a Big Ten All-Freshman team pick last year, had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five steals to help the Spartans overcome an early 16-point deficit and nearly pull it out Friday night.
Guard Keith Appling had 17 points and five assists, and freshman Gary Harris chipped in 11 points. But Dawson was the story.
He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the regular-season finale with Ohio State and underwent a lengthy time in a cast and rehabilitation that went far better than MSU coach Tom Izzo anticipated.
“Branden is a big X factor,” Izzo said before the season opener. “He’s had a freakish comeback recovery after being off seven months, and he also worked on his ball skills and is so much better with the ball.”
Assistant coach Mike Garland added: “The cast came off and the leg did not atrophy! It was amazing.”
There was less to rebuild, which impacted Dawson’s ability to make a quick impact.
Appling said: “There are some days when I ask myself, ‘Was he hurt?’ “
Now Dawson is focusing on hurting opponents. At 6 feet 6 and 230 pounds, Dawson has the power to be a factor on the boards and the quick hands to step out and do things away from the basket.
Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American from Gary (Ind.) Lew Wallace High, averaged 28.7 points, 18.6 rebounds and 5.6 points as a senior.
He could end up being the all-important glue between the frontcourt and backcourt.
Dawson can help centers Derrick Nix (11 rebounds and two steals against UConn) and Adreian Payne, who often play together, bang down low. He had five of his eight offensive rebounds during the first-half comeback.
The No. 14 Spartans came out sluggish in the first 10 minutes of a game played before 3,500 at Hangar 5, but couldn’t blame the jet lag of a six-hour time difference, because the unranked Huskies faced the same challenge.
“We didn’t look quite ready offensively,” Izzo said in a postgame interview on WJR-AM with former MSU coach Gus Ganakas. “It was disappointing. You just can’t play leaky defense for a half and miss layups.”
However, a one-handed, flying dunk by Dawson that cut the deficit to 28-18 sparked the Spartans. He took the feed from Appling on the break and turned in a highlight-reel play.
Dawson had been wearing a knee brace at the insistence of the team’s medical staff, but was allowed to take it off for the first time after wearing it in two exhibition games. All he wore was a sleeve over the knee, and the freedom appeared to make a difference for him.
The smaller Huskies triumphed thanks to a three-guard offense that performed like a buzzsaw at times. Shabazz Napier scored 25, and Ryan Boatright added 13 while playing with a foot or ankle injury after stepping on Appling’s foot.
UConn outshot the Spartans, 46 to 39 percent. But a 35-25 rebounding edge kept MSU in the game and allowed it several brief second-half leads.
“Offensive rebounding – that is how they’ve stayed in the game,” first-year Huskies coach Kevin Ollie told ESPN at halftime.
Ollie, the replacement for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, is working under a one-year contract.
MSU settled down and nearly pulled it out. But Appling’s pull-up jumper that could have tied the score at 62-62 in the final seconds didn’t fall, and Napier hit four free throws after that to put it away.
Dawson’s tip-in with 1.4 seconds left was too little, too late.
Izzo said backup point guard Travis Trice, who left after a collision in the lane, could be out a while.
“It looks like he might have a concussion,” Izzo told WJR.