With less than two minutes left in the game and Michigan State clinging to a four-point lead, Draymond Green took the ball and drove to his left. Desperate for a score and swarmed by defenders, Green spotted his teammate Keith Appling spotting up in the opposite corner. Just as his momentum was carrying him out of bounds under the basket, Green delivered the ball to Appling and supporters from both sides held their breath.
Appling leaped and fired a shot that would go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the Third Round game between Michigan State and Saint Louis. The ball hit the rim, rolled around and dropped in to give the Spartans a 58-51 lead with just 1:37 remaining. After that, Michigan State just needed to hit its foul shots to go on to win 65-61.
"All night they had pretty much been begging me to shoot the ball," Appling said. "We got in the huddle during one of our timeouts and Draymond instilled some confidence in me, telling me I was a 3-point shooter last year, `So shoot the ball.'
"We drew up a play for him and the defense collapsed and I was wide open. He hit me with a pass that was perfect, right in my shooting pocket, and I was able to knock it down. As soon as it came off my hand, it felt good, and once I saw it go through the hoop, I was all smiles."
Sure enough, the defensive game plan drawn up by Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus was to back off of Appling in order to limit the productivity of Michigan State's powerful forwards. On the season, Appling is just 23 of 94 from beyond the arc (24.5%), and with Saint Louis challenging him to shoot, he was only 0 for 2 from long range... until that last shot went in.
"It really did work to a T," Billikens forward Brian Conklin said of the plan. "I said it was going to be a war, dirty basketball, a defensive battle and it ended up being that. The guy we wanted to take shots, he hit a couple, and that's the difference in the game."
Although he didn't hit a three-pointer until the end of the game, Appling was very effective throughout, with 19 points and 3 assists on 7 of 14 shooting. The Saint Louis plan was able to hold Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne to a combined 14 points and 8 rebounds, but Draymond Green got his usual double-double with 16 points (6 of 11 field goals), 13 rebounds and 6 assists.
Majerus wasn't shy about praising the Big Ten Player of the Year after the game.
"Green does a great job of being a good defender for an outstanding scorer. I think he's the best player in the country. Is he the best potential player in the country? No, I take the kid probably from Kentucky (Anthony Davis). But if I had to take a kid right now to win a national championship, I'd take Draymond Green."
I take that to mean that Majerus believes Anthony Davis is a better NBA prospect (and pretty much every NBA executive would agree with him), but that Green is the more valuable player right now. He might be right about that as well. Green is one of four finalists for the Naismith Award that is given to the country's best college basketball player. The others are Davis, Thomas Robinson of Kansas and Doug McDermott of Creighton.
What sets Green apart, besides his outstanding play, might be the trust and confidence he has in his teammates. When talking about the Appling three-pointer, Green said, "I don't need to be a hero trying to make some scoop layup. If I see a guy open, I'm going to hit him. He was wide open in the corner, and I knew once he caught the ball, it was going in. I didn't try to get the rebound. I ran down the court. I already knew it was going in."
You mean the best player on the court doesn't need to be the hero? Green might already know something about basketball that many NBA veterans don't.
Even though the Spartans shot 54.3% compared to SLU's 35.3%, the game was so close because of the edge Saint Louis had in the other three of the all-important four factors to winning. The Billikens held a 7 to 4 advantage in offensive rebounding, turned the ball over only 6 times (MSU had 11), and beat the Spartans both in free throw attempts and free throw percentage.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo explained how his team was able to compete in such a physical game. "We didn't pretend to be God's gift to basketball," he said, "We know we're a working man's group. And we had to work today."