AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Gary Harris played a game of around-the-world in the first half against Memphis. It’s a playground game where shooters start in one corner along the baseline and have to make shots all around the perimeter to the other corner.
Harris hit his first 3-pointer from the left corner, then nailed one from the right corner. His next 3-pointer came from the top of the arc and to the left of the free-throw line, and the last one came from the same spot on the right side of the court.
He was on fire and so were the Spartans.
The last of those treys sent MSU and its fans into an uproarious frenzy at The Palace of Auburn Hills. A timeout was called, and guard Denzel Valentine hugged Harris and shouted into his ear. Then Dawson ran up and shouted in his face.
“I shouted, ‘Let’s go!’” Dawson said. “We were really into it . . . Gary really got us going.”
After Harris’ wave of threes, the Spartans had a 26-13 lead en route to a 70-48 victory in Saturday’s NCAA Midwest regional game for a Sweet 16 berth.
Harris, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, didn’t make another 3-pointer. But he finished with a career-high 23 points by making 6 of 9 shots and 7 of 8 free throws in a very productive 25 minutes.
Harris came out after picking up his fourth foul, with 13:42 remaining, but guard Denzel Valentine came off the bench to score seven of his nine points after that juncture.
MSU coach Tom Izzo called it “a monstrous first half” for Harris, who found a shooter’s rhythm with four 3-pointers in a span of 4 minutes, 21 seconds.
“It just felt good,” Harris said. “They were able to find me when I was open and had confidence in me, and I was able to knock down the shot.”
Harris has had one shoulder or the other pop out all season ever since taking a hard blow in the first minute of the Boise State game on Nov. 20. Yet he’s missed only two games — both in late November.
He’s played through pain with grit and has never gone less than 22 minutes in a game, even when the discomfort became excruciating.
“Big heart, lot of guts,” Izzo said. “He’s a tough kid. I think he shines — you know — he wants to play in the big games.”
Izzo played him at times this season when Harris could barely shoot because the Spartans needed Harris’ defense. There was even a game where Izzo told Harris not to get into the battle under the boards.
Harris would wince at times, and you could almost feel his uneasiness by looking into his eyes. But he would downplay it whenever asked about the shoulder problems.
Harris was asked about it again Friday and said, “It feels pretty good right now. My body’s probably feeling the best it’s felt since I’ve been up here these last few weeks. I mean, just making progress. That’s all I can ask for.”
Players always tell reporters they feel better than they actually do. But you could see the difference in Harris when the Spartans came out for pregame drills. He had a bounce in his step and no longer had that stiff gait. He smiled, and his eyes shined.
“He played like Gary — silky smooth,” MSU center Derrick Nix said. “I didn’t see him in any pain at all today.
“Gary’s a pretty tough kid, and he plays through pain. But today he brought the pain.”