EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Adreian Payne is surprising even his coach with his recovery from a foot injury.
”It’s amazing,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said of his senior star. ”Here’s a kid that two or three years ago couldn’t get up and down the floor more than 15-18 minutes a game. Now he’s carrying our team. I’m proud of him.”
Payne had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and No. 9 Michigan State cruised past Northwestern 85-70 on Thursday night to stay tied atop the Big Ten. Izzo can only hope his other injured players come back as well as Payne has. Keith Appling was out again with a wrist problem, and Branden Dawson has an injured hand.
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The Spartans (21-4, 10-2) are even in the standings with rival Michigan – and those two teams meet in Ann Arbor on Feb. 23.
Payne missed about a month with his injury, and in three games since returning, he’s scored 56 points. After Thursday’s win, he was looking forward to seeing 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, a young girl fighting cancer whom Payne has become close with. She was seated near the court at the game.
”I haven’t seen her yet, but she’ll be out there in a few minutes,” Payne said. ”It’s always good to see her smile that way.”
Payne played one of his better games of the season Thursday, and Gary Harris added 14 points for Michigan State, rebounding a bit from a poor shooting performance in a loss to Wisconsin last weekend. The Spartans shot 53 percent from the field against a Northwestern team that came in with a sterling defensive reputation.
The Wildcats (12-13, 5-7) had not allowed 80 points in a game in over a month.
”We definitely had more breakdowns tonight defensively than I thought we’ve had in the last month,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. ”Part of that is them running a really good offense, and part of that were some breakdowns we had that we just haven’t had.”
JerShon Cobb had 22 points and seven rebounds for Northwestern.
The Wildcats have won road games at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota this season, and their tough defense has given a number of Big Ten teams problems. But this game started with both teams scoring efficiently through much of the first half.
Michigan State led 39-30 at halftime, then scored the first seven points of the second half. Payne had a dunk and a 3-pointer in that stretch, and although the Wildcats prevented the game from getting totally out of hand, they weren’t able to cut their deficit back into single digits.
”When healthy, I truly believe they’re the best team in the country,” Collins said. ”They’re loaded. I hope they can get healthy.”
Izzo said he’s hoping Appling can come back within a week – and Dawson not long after that.
”I’m hoping sometime in the mid-20s or early-20s of this month, we’ll get Branden back,” Izzo said.
Michigan State led by 11 when Denzel Valentine and Harris made back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 77-60. Valentine finished with a career-high 16 points, along with six assists and five rebounds.
Travis Trice had 11 points and six assists, helping the Spartans withstand Appling’s absence.
”When I’m scoring the basketball, it really adds something to this team,” Valentine said. ”If I can score from eight on up, we’re a different team.”
Harris went 3 of 20 in the loss to Wisconsin, but he scored seven points in the first half of this game and had plenty of help. Michigan State had nine offensive rebounds in the first half and shot 62 percent from the field in the second to pull away.
Michigan State beat Northwestern 54-40 on Jan. 15, but this was a much higher-scoring game. Cobb made five 3-pointers, and Drew Crawford and Tre Demps scored 18 points each for the Wildcats.
But only two other Northwestern players scored.
The Spartans shot 11 of 21 from 3-point range, with Trice and Valentine making three each from beyond the arc. Michigan State turned the ball over only seven times.