College Hoops Player of the Day for Thursday, January 31, 2013
Big Ten basketball is not for the feint of heart.
There are five ranked teams and that list doesn't presently include Wisconsin and Illinois, both of which were ranked earlier in the season and are safe bets to be heading to the NCAA tournament in about six weeks, assuming they can grind out tough schedules in conference play.
The Fighting Illini came out smoking at Michigan State Thursday night, but eventually fell to the Spartans, 80-75, in a pivotal match-up for both squads.
Illinois took a ten-point, 37-27, lead into the half, but the Spartans responded with 12 straight points to open the second half, taking the lead and never relinquishing it.
Point guard Keith Appling took over the game when it counted the most, scoring 19 of his game-high 24 points after the break. Quietly emerging as a team leader, Appling dazzled the Illini with crossover dribbles and deft passes, dishing the ball seven times to teammates, twice finding Brandon Dawson (12 points, 9 rebounds) at the rim for thunderous, momentum-building dunks.
The 6'1" junior was 7-for-12 from the field, making two of four from three-point land and eight of 12 at the charity stripe. He also snagged a season high eight boards as the Spartans out-rebounded Illinois, 33-24.
The win was crucial for the 13th-ranked Spartans, following their 75-70 loss at Indiana this past Sunday.
For the Illini, the loss was their fifth in their last six games, lowering their Big Ten mark to a putrid 2-6. In the midst of a challenging stretch, Illinois has already lost consecutive games to Michigan and Michigan State, and have Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota straight ahead.
Michigan and Indiana top the conference at 7-1, followed by the 7-2 Spartans.