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March 10, 2013

Spartans' focus wavered after bad news

EAST LANSING - This was one Big Ten title coach Tom Izzo could live without.

Needing help from rival Michigan for a chance to share the conference crown, No. 10 Michigan State instead settled for second place. The Spartans beat Northwestern 71-61 on Sunday night, but they'd already been eliminated from the championship race when Indiana beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

''Sure, I would have liked to have another Big Ten championship, but I like getting them when I earn them,'' Izzo said. ''I don't need anybody else earning them for me.''

Keith Appling scored 16 points and Gary Harris added 12 for the Spartans, who struggled to put away the undermanned Wildcats. Northwestern (13-18, 4-14 Big Ten) rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit, tying the game at 51 before the Spartans recovered.

Kale Abrahamson scored 16 points for Northwestern, which has lost eight straight. The Spartans finished in a tie for second place with Ohio State, a game behind Indiana.

Michigan State senior Derrick Nix scored 10 points in his final home game. The Spartans (24-7, 13-5) shot 66 percent from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range.

Michigan State held its Senior Day ceremony for Nix after the game - and Izzo fired up the crowd crowd with a rousing speech, despite the fact that the Spartans fell short of the title.

Michigan State needed Michigan to beat Indiana for the Spartans to have any chance of sharing the championship.

''You've got yourself a blue-collar coach who hasn't been given anything,'' Izzo told the crowd. ''And I don't want anything from anyone else in this state.''

The Wolverines and Hoosiers were tied at 64 when Michigan State's game tipped off. Michigan inched ahead, and with fans in East Lansing glancing at hand-held devices, it appeared the Wolverines might get a rare ovation at the Breslin Center.

But Michigan let the game slip away, removing some of the meaning from Michigan State's regular-season finale. Appling said he got the news of the Wolverines' loss from assistant coach Dane Fife.

''Coach Fife told me they won. Then he said they lost,'' Appling said. ''After that it was hard to focus in on the game.

"It changed how I felt. I still wanted to win the game but I kind of lost a little focus. But like Coach (Tom Izzo) always says, we can't depend on someone else to do something for us. We had an opportunity and it went out the window. But we kind of get a second chance to redeem ourselves in the Big Ten tournament."

The rest of the first half seemed anti-climactic - the most interesting moment might have been when a small bird was spotted on the actual playing surface near midcourt for a few seconds.

Early in the second half, out-of-town scores were announced at Breslin, but Michigan-Indiana was left out. That drew a chuckle from some people in the crowd.

At that point, Northwestern had rallied to within five. It was 43-40 before Travis Trice and Adreian Payne made back-to-back 3-pointers to push the lead back to nine.

The Wildcats answered with an 11-2 run, tying it at 51 on two free throws by Reggie Hearn. Abrahamson could have given Northwestern the lead, but his 3-pointer from near the top of the key went in and out.

Northwestern went 7 of 27 from beyond the arc.

''To beat that team, you have to be 12 for 27,'' Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. ''You can't be 7 for 27.''

Harris put Michigan State back up by two. Alex Olah tied it again with a dunk, but Nix scored inside to give the Spartans the lead for good.

Nix was pulled with 1:03 remaining and his team up by nine. He kissed the Spartans' logo at midcourt and then left to a nice hand.

''This program has given me way more than I've given the program,'' Nix told the crowd after the game. ''This is probably the best team I've been on my whole life. These guys have all come to my rescue at some point, and Coach is probably the closest I've had to a father.''

Northwestern, which is without Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire because of injuries, will be seeded 11th in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan State will be the No. 3 seed. The Spartans have a first-round bye and could play the Wildcats again in the quarterfinals Friday if 11th-seeded Northwestern upsets No. 6 Iowa in the first round on Thursday.

It's not the spot the Spartans wanted to be in.

"We've got to take the blame for that ourselves," Nix said. "We take nothing from anybody around here. We've just go to try to get it back in the Big Ten tournament."

Michigan State had played four straight ranked opponents before seemingly getting a breather against Northwestern (13-18, 4-14). But the Spartans didn't take the lead for keeps until 5:16 remained.

"We put a crack in the door for Northwestern and to their credit, they did the job and we didn't," Izzo said. "You have to win tight games and when it really came down to it, we started to get the ball back inside and did some things we have to do. That's going to serve us well in the tournament."

Nix dominated inside from the early going as the Spartans grabbed a 33-26 halftime lead. He had six points but his interior passing was more impressive, as he dished out three of MSU's 11 first-half assists and helped it rack up 24 points in the paint.

Nix set up a Branden Dawson layup midway through the half for a 15-7 Spartans lead and Dawson followed with a dunk. A baseline reverse layup by Nix and a Harris 3-pointer gave Michigan State its biggest lead at 22-9 with 7:18 remaining.

Later, Nix split a double team for a layup and found Alex Gauna for another layup to make it 33-21 before the Wildcats closed the gap to seven by halftime.

"We were just trying to pick and choose when to double team Nix and he hurt us a few times," Carmody said. "We went to double team him and he found guys under the basket in the first half and then he threw it out to Trice once or twice. He's a big kid, he sees stuff and he's unselfish."

Appling post-game video:






Izzo Unplugged

Izzo's opening statement at his post-game press conference: "How about Nix. 500 and some practices, 130 and some games he has played, DJ (Coach Dwayne Stephens) says it's the eighth wonder of the world that we got him through it. He was the one guy that actually played pretty well tonight.

"I think what I said out there happened to all of us. The crowd, the players and everybody -- their mood changed a little bit (due to being eliminated from the Big Ten Championship race). We had something to do with that and in all honesty, a lot of people get a lot of credit in these jobs, but Bill Carmody did a great job. For him to get his team up, they had played so many people pretty well. I love the guy. He's got about as beat up of a crew as you can have with three starters on the bench. I think he had something to do with it.

"So it wasn't one-dimensional, but it did bother us a little bit ... I'm afraid to say even though I talked about not trying to worry about anything else other than what we can control.

"For me, it was a no brainer -- just control what we can control and move on. Players -- you know I've won seven of those things (Big Ten Championships) and some of those guys haven't won one yet, so I think it has a bigger effect (on them).

"Yet to shoot 66 percent, 60 percent from the three and 75 percent from the line, and struggle to win is a little concerning. I didn't think we covered great and I didn't think we rebounded well. Then when the first play of the game they banked in that three, I kind of swallowed my tongue and said uh-oh, it's going to be one of those days.

"They hit a couple of long shots and we missed some too.

"All in all, I'm just proud of this team for showing up 31 different times. We've found a way to not do what so many other teams have done. Now we've got something to look forward to and try to move forward in this tournament, which will be like a Final Four if you look at the number of teams ranked. This is way bigger than some Final Fours I have been in."

On whether he could forgive them for not having their best game after so many big games:
"I don't want to forgive them because at this time of the year you want to be moving forward, but I understand there was so many emotional things that went on this past couple of days. You have to win tight games too. When it came down to it, we started getting the ball back inside and we did the things that we had to do. That's going to do well for us in the tournament.

"Bill did a great job; we thought for sure he was zoning. He had been zoning all the time and he completely fooled us. All we really worked on was against the 1-3-1 and 2-3, then they came out and manned the whole game. So free pass, hall pass, I understand it, but at least the focus when I came into the locker room this morning was great. Focus during the walk-through was great. So like I said, they've shown up every time. I've had a lot of great teams, including a National Championship team that didn't do that."

Not having a Big Ten title, does that change what the team is about?
"I hope not. It won't for me because there is no question if we were picked third and forth in this league, I still say we had the toughest schedule of anybody in this league in terms of the one-plays, and we were right there in the last day still with a chance to win the Big Ten Championship. Since we won our first one, that's where I've wanted the program to be. We didn't win them all and I think we've lost three now in the last day, two on our own and one with other help.

"I don't think it should change it, but some of it's going to depend on what we do as we move on. It won't change the fact that this team went through the most brutal schedule. I don't know what it's ranked now, but it was the number one (schedule in the country) at some point last week. It is one of the most brutal schedules in the whole country.

"Last year, our schedule was ranked number one in the country. We've ducked nobody and I'm so proud of that and Mark Hollis is and the president is. We've got a lot of things to feel good about, but it's this time of year now when you get measured a little bit on what you do from now on. The first measuring stick, I think we passed, I really do. Now the ones coming up are going to be even more crucial."

On how far Derrick Nix has come:

"His high school coach is a heck of a guy and he's been here the whole time. His mother -- when I went through tough times with him a few times, one time in particular -- was a rock. She was so good that I swear to you at that time, one of the reasons I kept banging my head against the wall was because of her. She understood it, she didn't make excuses, she told me how she would have handled it and it was probably worse than I would have handled it.

"I meant what I said, Antonio (Smith)s taught me a lot, the Mateens have taught me a lot and the Travis Waltons have taught me. I learned a lot from this kid. I just hope he continues to move forward now.

"When he walks (graduates), the party is at my house. He has to get himself healthy again. With the fluctuation of weight and how hard he has had to work, he's got some wear and tear on that body. I think if we can get it back down to exactly where we want it and get him some rest, he's going to play somewhere. So I guess, off the court we've learned a lot. Everybody doesn't have what I have and I don't have what some people have. You better give your kid a chance to fail and succeed."


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