The first time Tom Izzo spoke to ESPN's Allison Williams during the telecast of Tuesday's game between his fifth-ranked Spartans and No. 3 Ohio State, he was something well short of pleased. Still smarting from a no-call on what he thought was a shove just before the first-half buzzer, the future Hall of Famer shot death stares either at Williams or through her (and presumably toward his zebra antagonists) during his on-air halftime interview, which he punctuated with a departing eye roll.
By the time they met again for a post-game follow-up -- some 90 real-time minutes, a 17-point collapse, a ping-ponging overtime period, and a high-profile conference win later -- he looked understandably exhausted as he tried to wrestle the accompanying array of emotions into comprehension. And then, briefly, he settled on a cliched truth. "A win's a win," he said. He smiled.
If the first marquee matchup of this year's Big Ten slate is at all a harbinger for the rest of it, there will be plenty of emotional rollercoasters to endure for parties both involved and uninvolved. The Spartans' 72-68 overtime win on Tuesday, which knocked Ohio State from the ever-shrinking list of unbeatens, was all an observer would expect from a clash between the league's elites -- a regular-season slobberknocker that, right as the sun sets on one major collegiate sport, served as an easy showcase for what can be so great about another.
The news entering the much-anticipated game had been increasingly ominous for Michigan State. Hosting its second top-five clash in as many years (after Indiana's visit last February), the school had to request that its students refrain from their usual pre-game campouts in the zero-degree weather, compromising by admitting them into the Breslin Center an hour earlier than usual. Forty-five minutes before tipoff, Izzo got word that forward Adreian Payne, the team's second leading scorer and rebounder, would not be able to start and might not play at all due to the plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Reserve guard Travis Trice would also miss the game due to an illness.
These were merely the latest ailments for a team that had just gotten starting two-guard Gary Harris back from a sprained ankle and seen point guard Keith Appling play through a sprained wrist and reserve forward Matt Costello battle mononucleosis.
But thanks to the Buckeyes' first-half offensive malaise (accentuated by a Spartan defense that dragged many Ohio State possessions to the final seconds) and several key buckets from Harris, Michigan State was able to carve out a seven-point halftime lead in that Big-Ten-rock-fight sort of way. And in the second half, with the Izzone at full throttle, Payne made it easy to forget how hobbled and limited he had looked before halftime with a pair of explosive put-back dunks in a 70-second span. Two minutes later he drained a three that put the Spartans up by 15 with 8:32 remaining.
"He was in tears and told me he couldn’t go," Izzo said afterward of Payne's pre-game status, adding that it was ultimately Payne that decided he could play. "I said fine, just come out here and see how it goes. I think I’m going to hurt the other ankle tomorrow to be honest, because he was pretty active with all the dunks and whatnot."
Yet it was right around the peak of Michigan State's dominance that Ohio State began sowing the seeds of its comeback.
The Buckeyes started by applying their defense in the backcourt, forcing the Spartans to begin everything that much farther from the basket. Then Michigan State went cold -- after an Appling bucket put them up by 17 just before the eight-minute mark, the Spartans made just one more field goal in regulation. It was then that the Buckeyes suddenly found their offense. Three straight Sam Thompson scores cut the lead to single digits with just under four to play, and his alley-oop dunk from Craft a minute later cut the deficit to four. Craft, the team's dogged and divisive star, came up with a three-point play on a reverse layup a minute later, then -- deep breath -- after Shannon Scott drew an offensive foul on Appling, Craft preserved the Buckeyes' possession in a mad scramble for a loose ball by corralling it and calling timeout while on the floor. Off the ensuing inbound pass on the baseline, he threw a pass off Payne's buttocks to himself for a score that cut the Spartans' lead to 57-56.
Payne was fouled with 42 seconds on the clock, but made just one of his two free throws. On the other end, Craft tried for his third straight bucket, driving to the hoop as he had so easily in the closing minutes, but missed the layup only for Amir Williams to put back the rebound and tie the score. With two timeouts in his pocket and more than 20 seconds left, Izzo signaled a play to Appling from the sideline, only for Scott to jump into the passing lane and break away with the ball as the clock wound down. With Appling breathing down his neck, Scott missed the layup, which had just barely cleared the cylinder when Payne tipped it away from a leaping Thompson -- who was primed for a winning put-back -- as time expired.
In the extra period, the Spartans found some of their offensive groove again. Kenny Kaminski, a 6-8 redshirt freshman who entered Tuesday with 29 points in seven games, hit his third trey of the game to snap the Spartans' 5:40 drought from the field. Payne followed with another -- the final three of his 18 points on the night -- to give his team a 65-61 lead with 2:20 to play. After a Harris free throw, Craft drove in for the Buckeyes' first field goal of overtime. Appling's attempt at a response was damaging in two ways: he rushed a shot (and missed) with more than 10 seconds still on the shot clock, and as he got back on defense he reached toward his leg due to what Izzo would later describe as cramps. Craft soon found Thompson, his co-conspirator in the second-half surge and Ohio State's leading scorer with 18, on the wing for a three to tie the game.
"Keith just couldn’t go," Izzo said. "Both his legs were cramped up; they were working on them every minute. He couldn’t get open to save his life. You want to write a story? Write it on his character and his heart. Because he sucked it up and so did Payne."
Appling – who scored a game-high 20 – sucked it up enough to win the game on the Spartans' next possession. With the shot click winding down and less than 30 seconds remaining in overtime, he coolly rose and fired above Scott’s extended hand to rattle in a go-ahead three from straightaway.
That basket would, finally, prove to be the decisive one. After a series of free throws, Buckeyes freshman Marc Loving missed a hopeful heave, Appling brought in the rebound and was fouled, and he made one of two shots to arrive at the final score. The horn then sounded before Thompson could unleash a futile full-court heave off Appling's miss of the second, and the Spartans escaped with a victory. After Appling's game-sealing rebound, the student section had erupted into a chant of "YES! YES! YES!" It was a celebration borrowed from the Spartans' Rose Bowl-winning football team -- which led a particularly rousing version of the cheer at halftime -- who had in turn borrowed it from WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan. Given how often they'd employed the chant throughout the game, it's likely the fans would have done so again regardless of how Michigan State arrived at victory. But in the heat of the final moments, with how wildly the game had unfolded, it seemed a celebration hardened by relief -- as if acknowledging that this win felt like a bit more than just a win.