EAST LANSING - When an official put his hands in the shape of a "T" and blew his whistle during Saturday's Michigan State-Texas game at Breslin Center, most people on the Spartan bench assumed the technical foul call had gone against the Longhorns. "The two-a-day practices, whereas normally they are grinds, I think the players appreciated those practices this week.That really benefited this team."
Texas center Prince Ibeh had just blocked a second straight Derrick Nix shot.
Nix was already in the process of having a career game. But Ibeh did a good job of staying down while Nix attempted a post move. From there, Nix didn't have the lift to get his shot off over the long-armed, athletic, 6-foot-10 Ibeh.
Ibeh stared Nix down and said some rude things to Nix the first time he blocked his shot.
The second time, Nix fell to the ground. Ibeh stepped over him, in an attempt to humiliate.
Nix jumped to his feet and said some bad things to Ibeh and the officials. It was Nix, not Ibeh, who was called for the tech.
After Izzo heard an explanation from the officials, Izzo agreed with the call and pointed some anger toward Nix.
Nix already had 17 points and a double-double at that juncture. He had already established himself as the dominant player on the court.
But MSU was up only 41-40, and firmly in the process of potentially wasting Nix's career game. Suddenly, Izzo was concerned that Nix was going to come unglued.
"Nix said something to the official, and that ticked me off," Izzo said of Nix's technical foul. "I told him, 'I'm going to leave you in there, Nix, to see if you can grow up for once in your life.'
"I said, 'But you have to be under control.'"
Nix admits he was on the verge of getting drawn into a personal battle with Ibeh, which could have proved disastrous.
"Coach told me to calm down and don't let it go any farther from there, to just let it go," Nix said. "That was good advice because I have an anger problem and I was just ready to fight. Of course I would never fight a ref. But that is frustrating when someone walks over your face and you get the technical. That's garbage."
Nix played calm, controlled and effective the rest of the game. Michigan State needed that from him.
Meanwhile, the alumni version of The Izzone stepped up their game as well. They yelled and screamed about the technical foul call. Texas's Sheldon McClellan missed both free throws amid the jeers.
"Coming out of that technical foul was one of the loudest times it got during the game," said Texas guard Javan Felix. "It was loud all night. Coach told us coming into the game that it was going to be loud and that this game would definitely test our mental toughness."
Texas flinched. Nix did not.
By the next time Nix got a chance to go to work in the low post against Ibeh, the Spartans had scored 5 straight points in opening a 46-40 lead.
With MSU gaining momentum and Breslin Center growing to its loudest point of the season, Nix posted up against Ibeh. Nix offered a shuffle dribble, and the beginnings of a post move. Ibeh coiled to block another shot. Texas's other defenders sagged and maybe even spectated.
That's when Nix showed the control Izzo called for. Nix sold the idea that he was working for more personal dominance. But then, Nix kicked it out to his old high school teammate Keith Appling, open at the top of the key for a 3-pointer. Appling drilled it, putting MSU up 49-40 with 11:27 to go and forcing Texas to call a time out.
"We missed those two free throws and they came down and hit a three and that was the turning point in the game," Felix said. "We just had to come out and focus and stick to what we were doing but I don't thing we did that. We shied away from it and I think it hurt us."
H to The Izzone
Give the Alumni Izzone an assist for helping fuel the turning point.
With students home for the holidays, Michigan State continued the tradition of reaching out to its best past members of The Izzone to come back and serve as the white-shirted loudsters at court side. They were easily more vocal than the current Izzoners.
"Pat all them on the back," Izzo said. "That group, about 1,400 kids drove in - one from Shanghai, one from Pittsburgh, one from San Diego, one from Australia, just for this weekend."
Driving from Australia? That is impressive.
But we get the point.
And the Alumni Izzone helped make their point in disagreeing with the technical foul.
"Fans love technicals," Izzo said. "Coaches don't like 'em, but fans love 'em."
In this case, Izzo could love the technical foul too, even though it went against his guy at a juncture which could have given Texas the lead at the midway point of the second half. Instead, the foul served as a fueling point for the Spartans, and a teaching point for Nix.
Payne Answers Big
After Nix enjoyed what was probably the most active half of basketball of his college career, fellow big man Adreian Payne joined him with a tremendous second half.
Payne scored all 13 of his points after the break, including some clutch shot clock plays and a dagger dunk.
Shortly before Nix's technical foul, Payne drove the lane for a swooping one-handed jam to put MSU up 41-38. Payne went to work on that drive with the shot clock ticking down below :05.
But Payne didn't notice the shot clock.
When he received the ball on the left wing, Michigan State desperately needed him to create a shot. There wasn't time to pass to a teammate for Plan B.
Everyone in the arena knew this, except for Payne.
"I didn't know the clock was running down on that one," Payne said.
He just reacted off a defensive read.
"There wasn't anybody open and there was a clear lane to the rim, and I knew that I could get there in one dribble," Payne said. "Just finishing it was the main part."
Oh he finished, all right.
"When A.P. dunked that one, I turned to him instantly and was like, 'Yeah!' and cussing and doing all kinds of crazy stuff," Nix said. "I was so into the game."
After the missed technical foul free throws, Texas locked up for more than :30 seconds of good defense.
Again, Payne ended up with the ball and the shot clock expiring.
This time, Payne was aware of the need to create a shot in a hurry.
"I felt like I had to create space and I felt if I could get to the middle of the lane I could step back and the rest was just follow-through and put it in," Payne said.
Payne's step-back, fall-away jumper over Ioannis Papapetrou from 16 feet gave MSU a 43-40 lead and continue the technical foul-fueled fan frenzy at Breslin.
"I feel like I had to make a play because there wasn't anybody else stepping up to make a play," Payne said. "The ball was in my hands, so I had to make something happen."
For the first time this season, and perhaps for the first time in his career, Payne looked like the mismatch four that many expected he could become.
"He is skilled," Nix said of Payne. "He is like a baby Kevin Durant, that's what we call him."
Finally, A Front-Line Rotation
There are no plans to move Payne back into the starting lineup. The Spartans are starting to get a comfort level in utilizing Nix with Branden Dawson in the starting lineup, while bringing Payne off the bench.
Payne has played the five, with Dawson at the four. And Payne has played the four, with Nix at the five.
Payne meshed well in both capacities.
"Nix can post deep and I can pick and pop and be a finnese player and I don't mind playing physical either," Payne said. "So I think it can bring a lot to our offense."
Early in the the second half, Dawson drove to the rim on consecutive plays to set up scoring opportunities for Payne. Payne made a lay-up off the first Dawson dime. The second time, Payne was fouled and made one foul shot.
"Branden Dawson had a great week," Izzo said. "He is still not where he is going to be. But he made some progress."
We saw it in his ball handling, and improving face-up attack skills.
Dawson may not be the type of pick-and-pop threat that Izzo prefers at the four. But with his ability to face up and drive, he can create some mismatch situations off the bounce rather than with the shot. Izzo is probing and experimenting with some of the slashing options Dawson provides as a face-up four.
Ending On The Attack
When Texas cut the lead to 61-56 after causing two turnovers with a full-court press, MSU called time out with 1:41 left. Izzo drew up an old Heathcote-style press breaker and challenged his team to attack the pressure.
The play resulted in Appling driving up the left side line and feeding Payne at the rim for another dunk, this one a dagger.
"Me and Payne, we struggled early but I think we are coming out of our shells and playing up to our potential," Nix said.
Don't Feel Bad for Izzo
MSU fans tried to organize a special standing ovation for Izzo when his name was announced during pre-game introductions, as a show of support to the coach in the wake of Thursday's disappointing recruiting loss to Duke for the services of Jabari Parker.
Izzo didn't seem to notice the ovation while it happened, and was unaware of it when asked about it during the post-game press conference. It was kind of hard to notice the ovation because the crowd was already pretty lathered up during pre-game. And Izzo had a lot on his mind - namely the Longhorns. But Izzo noticed the fans' impact throughout the game, not just in pregame.
"They (the alumni Izzone) made a difference, so did (the rest of) our fans," Izzo said. "That's the way that place should be all the time. We are going to try to bring it, and they sure did bring it today."
As for the supportive ovation? Izzo acted as if he didn't need any pats on the back.
"Tom Izzo has been blessed; he's had a hell of a week," Izzo said of himself. "He had a lot of his players back and now had a lot of his students back."
Seriously, it's doubtful that any program in America could get as many former players and fans back in one week as Michigan State did this year. The fact that MSU recruits close to home certainly helped in getting more than 100 former players back for the reunion game at Jenison Field House.
Freshman big man Matt Costell saw only two minutes and sophomore pivot Alex Gauna played only six minutes. It's hard to get those guys playing time when Nix, Payne and Dawson are doing their thing.
"I've been really happy with Costello and Gauna," Izzo said. "I could have gotten them more minutes. They're going to start getting more."
Nix played 32 minutes in this game. Although he was active throughout, and dominant, Izzo doesn't want to play the big man that many minutes. Costello or Gauna should benefit from getting a handful of those minutes in the future as Izzo takes strides toward ironing out even more of his regular rotation.
"We screened better, we got it into the post better. We guarded pretty well and they shot 38 percent but they made some tough shots."
"We have to keep Valentine out of foul trouble and we have to keep Harris making some of those three's that he was making. He made all of them at the
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