Illinois spent 20 minutes looking like the team that we all remembered from November against No. 13 Michigan State on Thursday night.
You know the group I’m talking about. They beat Gonzaga at Gonzaga. They beat Butler by 17 points in Maui. They beat Ohio State by 19 points at home.
At the half, the Illini had built a 37-27 lead on the Spartans, as they knocked down enough threes early in the game to open up penetration lanes for their guards, who sliced up the Michigan State defense.
And I have a feeling that ticked off Tom Izzo, because the second half was a different story.
Michigan State reeled off a 14-0 run that they pushed to a 24-6 surge to start the second half, and never allowed the Illini to get closer than two points the rest of the way despite playing the majority of the half without the services of Gary Harris (back spasms) and Travis Trice. Without his back court help healthy, Keith Appling absolutely took over. He finished with 24 points, eight boards and seven assists, but like he did back in November in a win over Kansas, Appling seemingly made every big play down the stretch for Michigan State.
There was the three he made with four minutes left when Illinois cut it to three. There was the play where he split a double-team, nearly fell over and still found Branden Dawson for an alley-oop to put the Spartans up five with two minutes left. There was the driving layup with 45 seconds left that put Sparty up six and all but sealed the game. And, fittingly, there were the two free throws he hit with two seconds left to give Michigan State the 80-75 win.
This was the Keith Appling that Michigan State needs is they are going to give Indiana and Michigan a run for the Big Ten title. This was the Keith Appling that the Spartans need if they are going to have a chance to make the Final Four.
You know what you’re going to get out of Dawson every night, but beyond that, the rest of the Spartan roster can be inconsistent.
Sparty cannot afford for Appling to have disappearing acts like he did against Indiana.
Because if he had played better — if he had stayed out of foul trouble — Michigan State probably would have won that game.
And our opinion of the Spartans might be a bit different today.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.