EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s easy to point to Keith Appling as the reason Michigan State pulled out an 80-75 win over Illinois after a sluggish first half Thursday night.
The smooth point guard poured in 19 of his 24 points in the second half.
But the play of freshman guard Denzel Valentine was just as crucial. Had he not scored a season-high 14 points and sparked MSU with his hustle, coach Tom Izzo would’ve been discussing the first loss at Breslin Center this season instead of a salvaged victory.
It was Valentine’s steal against Illini guard Brandon Paul on the perimeter, followed by his court-length drive for a layup, that sparked the 14-0 run to start the second half. It took the Spartans less than four minutes to overcome the 37-27 halftime deficit with that burst.
And it was Valentine who sewed up the game with a pair of free throws with nine seconds remaining.
He saved the day for a team losing its guards at a rapid rate:
• Starting shooting guard Gary Harris left the game with back spasms.
• Backup point guard Travis Trice came out after getting kneed in the head, and Izzo fears he’ll be out for awhile if tests show a concussion.
• And with backup shooting guard Brandan Kearney’s transfer to Arizona State earlier this season, Izzo was down to three healthy scholarship guards.
Either Valentine or tri-captain Russell Byrd had to come through and complement Appling in the backcourt.
Valentine answered the call, getting 12 points in the second half.
“That was Valentine’s best game, and I’m going to give his dad some credit,” Izzo said. “I asked his dad to come over the other day, just to talk and see how we can help him because he’s been struggling.
“His dad was a true coach and an awesome guy. I think Denzel did some goofy things off the bat, but really beared down. I was proud of the job he did, even defensively. He earned it.”
So what happened in the Wednesday meeting that made a difference? What got a player who had averaged 1.3 points and shot .158 from the field in his last six games to bust out of his funk?
“I learned, I just can’t get down on myself,” Valentine said. “My dad said, ‘If you make a mistake, just get onto the next play. Make it up on defense.’
“Yeah, yeah, that was my biggest problem. I need to let that stuff go.”
Carlton Valentine, who coached his son at Lansing (Mich.) Sexton, waved off the credit Izzo bestowed on him.
“Give Izzo the credit,” Carlton said. “He recognized Denzel was struggling, and I’m just happy the Spartans won and he was able to contribute.
“I stay out of the way. I’m not his coach anymore; I’m his father … But they called me to sit down with them and Denzel.
“I gave him to the right people, people I trust. Coach Izzo recruited me out of DeMatha High, and him and (assistant coach) Dwayne Stephens are like family.”
The elder Valentine played for coaching legend Morgan Wootten at DeMatha in Hyattsville, Md., and chose the Spartans after teaming with future NBA and Duke star Danny Ferry on a 29-2 team that finished No. 1 in the USA Today rankings in 1983-84.
Carlton Valentine coached Sexton to back-to-back State Class B championships with his son leading the way.
Now he sits in the stands and watches him perform for the defending Big Ten champions.
“Denzel still made some mistakes on defense,” Carlton said, “but he was very efficient offensively.”
Valentine made all four shots from the field and was 6 of 8 on free throws.
“I agree with my dad,” Denzel said. “I’m pretty sure he wants to critique everything, but my dad respects Coach Izzo and was recruited by him. So what we do is this: If I ask, he will tell me.”
Izzo added, “Hopefully, this is a big building block for Denzel. He needs it.”
With the state of his guards, Izzo needs Denzel Valentine.
NIX BENCHED FOR ACADEMIC BREACH
Izzo didn’t start Derrick Nix at center for only the second time this season. This was the first time it was for disciplinary reasons.
“Nix missed class on Friday and he missed a tutor on Monday,” Izzo said. “Derrick Nix is 13 hours from graduating. He will be the first human being in his family who has graduated (college).
“It will be a cold day in hell before I do anything but get him graduated. If he has to sit the rest of the games, he will.”
Nix played 24 minutes — just 2:30 under his average for the season. He had eight points and only one rebound. He averages 9.0 points and 6.8 rebounds.
“I made a mistake,” Nix told reporters. “I know y’all missed class before. It was a stupid thing to do, not thinking they are checking my classes.”