With Michigan State’s season in peril, Draymond Green turned to teammate Keith Appling during a timeout and told him to be ready. His moment was near.
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And when it arrived, Appling delivered.
His shot, the one Green urged him to take, helped save the Spartans.
Appling’s critical 3-pointer with 1:34 left, a 20-foot jumper set up by Green’s drive and marvelous pass, gave Michigan State a 65-61 win Sunday over Saint Louis and thrust the top-seeded Spartans into the round of 16 after they survived a 90-foot tug-of-war and wills with the scrappy Billikens.
Green scored 16 points with 13 rebounds, but it was his sixth assist, a two-handed, overhead pass across the floor to Appling that allowed the Spartans (29-7) to advance. They’ll play No. 4 seed Louisville in the West Regional semifinals Thursday in Phoenix.
”I don’t need to be a hero trying to make some scoop layup,” Green said of his decision to pass up a shot. ”If I see a guy open, I’m going to hit him. He was wide open in the corner, and I knew once he caught the ball, it was going in. I didn’t try to get the rebound. I ran down the court. I already knew it was going in.”
Sitting a few feet away on the podium, Tom Izzo gave his star an incredulous look.
”Why didn’t you tell me?” Izzo said.
”Wasn’t enough time,” Green replied.
Appling added 19 points for the Spartans, who had to scrap their way past the ninth-seeded Billikens. Executing coach Rick Majerus’ game plan to perfection, Saint Louis controlled the tempo but never got a complete handle on Green, Michigan State’s superb, do-everything senior, who even grabbed a mop and helped wipe up some sweat off the floor in the final minute.
Sweeping past the Billikens was much tougher.
Kwamain Mitchell scored 13 and Brian Conklin 11 for Saint Louis, making its first appearance in the tournament since 2000. The Billikens gave the more-talented, more-experienced Spartans all they could handle but were unable to knock off a balanced team that has a chance to win it all.
”We made them earn every shot that they took,” said Conklin, who later broke down crying while talking about Majerus. ”The game plan worked to perfection. The guy that we wanted to make shots, he hit a couple. And that’s the difference in the game, four points, but that was the whole game plan.
”I said it was going to be a war – dirty basketball.”
Izzo was worn out after dealing with the Billikens.
”That was one of the tougher games we’ve played in,” said Izzo, taking his 10th team to a regional semifinal. ”But you’ve got to give our guys credit, too. We didn’t pretend to be God’s gift to basketball. We know we’re a working man’s group. And we had to work today.”
Majerus’ strategy was to ”muck up” the game and the Billikens were still within 55-51 when Green made the biggest play of the day.
After Izzo drew up an isolation play for him, Green drove the left side and as he neared the basket realized Appling had found some open space on the other side of the floor. Green fired his pass to Appling in front of Michigan State’s bench. The Spartans guard took aim, fired and had his 3-pointer drop, but only after it hit both sides of the rim and backboard before falling.
”All night they pretty much had me begging to shoot the ball,” Appling said. ”We got in the huddle in one of our timeouts and Draymond told me I was a 41 percent 3-point shooter last year, so shoot the ball. We drew up a play for him, and the defense collapsed and I was wide open, he hit me with a pass that was perfect, right in my shooter’s pocket, and I was able to knock it down.
”As soon as it came off of my hands, it felt good. And once I seen it go through the hoop, I was all smiles.”
Cody Ellis and Mike McCall Jr. made 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds for Saint Louis, and Michigan State’s victory wasn’t assured until Mitchell’s 3 with 3 seconds left was short.
As the horn sounded, Green, who had a triple-double Friday night in a win over LIU Brooklyn, raised his arms and hugged teammate Brandon Wood tightly before lining up with his teammate to shake hands with St. Louis’ players.
There was no excessive celebrating for the Spartans. They didn’t jump around, dance, pose for pictures or cut down the nets. Michigan State won’t climb any ladders until they reach higher goals.
”It’s about surviving and advancing,” Green said. ”That’s what we did.”
Majerus was proud of how his team battled.
”We fought our guts out,” the coach said. ”They’re a terrific team. I don’t know that we could have played better. Michigan State’s a great team. They should win the national championship. They’re extraordinarily well-coached. They have great kids. They compete. They do it the right way.”
After the Spartans lost their first two games this season to North Carolina and Duke, there were some who wondered if this Michigan State squad would recover and live up to the school’s high standards, the ones set by players such as Magic Johnson, Steve Smith, Scott Skiles and Mateen Cleaves.
There’s no debate anymore. Michigan State is more than legitimate and the Spartans can win with any style. Make them run and they’ll run. Slow them down and they’ll crawl. Start a fight and they’ll finish it.
They know what it takes.
”We all stuck together,” Green said. ”That’s how we won.”