EAST LANSING, Mich. — Gary Harris was raised a Boilermaker. His mother, Joy, was a basketball star for the gold and black and his father, Gary, also graduated from Purdue.
But on Saturday afternoon, playing against the alma mater of his parents for the first time, Harris lit them up. The freshman guard scored a season-high 22 points, making six-of-eight 3-point shots. And in doing so, he finally looked 100 percent after the shoulder sprain suffered Nov. 20 against Boise State knocked him out of two games and then limited his effectiveness.
The No. 18 Spartans (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) pulled away in the second half for an 84-61 win, riding Harris all the way and getting boosts after the intermission from forward Branden Dawson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and center Derrick Nix (10 points, five rebounds).
“Gary Harris really killed us,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter. “Obviously, hitting six 3’s, he got into a rhythm . . . You can’t let a guy like that get going.”
Painter recruited Harris, Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-America at Hamilton Southeastern High in Fishers, Ind., but came in second. Harris also visited Kentucky and Indiana, but chose MSU over his bloodlines.
His parents were among the 14,797 at Breslin Center, proudly wearing green and white Spartans sweatshirts and beaming after the game outside the team’s locker room.
I asked Joy Harris if she hesitated in putting on new colors with her school on the same court as her son.
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Joy, who pulled on the sweatshirt and laughed. “I’m putting the green on, and it was not hard at all. This is my son playing for this team and this school. I’ll root for Purdue except for when they play two games a year against Michigan State.”
Gary’s father chuckled and added, “No, this is not hard — not at all.”
The parents and son tried to downplay the significance.
When I asked Gary Harris about putting up that many points against the school he grew up rooting for, he didn’t mention Purdue, and said, “It’s a huge win for us — especially at home . . . I give credit to my teammates. They kicked it out to me, and made extra passes.”
Moms can sometimes say embarrassing things to their sons in attempting to discuss the game with them. But that’s different for Gary and Joy, who played in 2000 as a reserve forward for the Detroit Shock of the WNBA and still ranks seventh in Purdue career scoring with 1,747 points.
“I think I’m giving him great advice after games and practices,” Joy said. “But to him, sometimes, he just hears, ‘Mom, blah-blah-blah-blah.’ But at times he actually does listen to me.”
Gary came out of the locker room, wearing a jacket and winter cap, and gave his mother a big hug before saying a word.
The son said, “Mom told me before the game, ‘Be more aggressive and look for your shot more. Go out and play and have fun; be aggressive.’ ”
Pretty good advice — seeing as it’s exactly what Spartans coach Tom Izzo told him.
“I asked Gary Harris to be more aggressive,” Izzo said, “and I thought he played a heck of a game.”
Harris had been decent on treys with 31-percent accuracy, but he had been awful in the last four games. Harris was 3 for 19 (.158) in those contests. It took him less than half that many shots to make twice as many against Purdue.
Was it a matter of better form, shot selection or what?
“He had two shoulders that popped out,” Izzo said. “A less-tough kid might’ve been sitting, but he’s tough. A lot of it has been the injury.”
I asked Harris several questions pertaining to Izzo’s rationale, and Harris refused to use the shoulders as an alibi. That’s also something tough guys tend to do.
“Izzo told me, ‘Just keep shooting. They’re going to start to go down,’ ” Harris said.
And so it wasn’t about feeling better after an injury?
“No,” he said. “It hasn’t been bothering me.”
Harris credited MSU assistant coach Dane Fife, the former Indiana University captain who also was a Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-America while playing for his father, Dan, at Clarkston High.
“Dane Fife did a good job of getting my feet set before I shoot,” Harris said.
Harris is averaging 13.1 points for all that’s ailed him, and only point guard Keith Appling’s 14.3 are higher for MSU.
When Harris called Izzo to commit, Izzo was standing on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on the evening his team played North Carolina off the coast of Coronado, Calif. Izzo probably felt like taking off on that aircraft carrier deck like a jet plane himself.
“Gary Harris,” Izzo said Saturday, “is going to be a hell of a player.”