Spartans click with "perfect timing"

(Max Siker)

Michigan State sees major jumps -- and flashes of early season games -- in win against Northwestern on Friday night.

Denzel Valentine hesitated.

Michigan State had just clicked on the court for the first long stretches in a long time and the sophomore guard could not pin point the last time it looked like this.

"Probably Penn State – No, at Indiana," he said. "When we had all our players healthy and were playing good."

His second statement could easily have been taken to describe the Spartans 67-51 win against Northwestern on Friday night. Healthy at last and finding rhythm, the Spartans looked like they hadn't in months.

"It's perfect timing," Valentine said. "We are getting our key guys playing the way they used to and Keith (Appling) and (Branden Dawson) are a little bit more experienced and we are getting them back so I think that helps a lot."

Appling asserted himself, pushing the ball up the court and commanding the Michigan State offense, which was sparked by Dawson's energy – and 16 points and nine rebounds.

The senior point guard pointed to the other side of the ball. The defense that forced Northwestern to take up plenty of shot clock on many possessions had been missing in recent games.

"We made it tough for those guys all night to get a shot up," he said. "We just gotta take it for what it is right now, which is a W."

But he couldn't deny it was a little bit more than just a simple win.

"It seemed like we are a lot more in sync and we are getting our rhythm back now that everybody is back together," he said.

But it started on the defensive end, which has been in progress since the lineup returned to full strength.

"I'm just proud of the way we played defensively," coach Tom Izzo said. "I just thought our overall defense until the last seven minutes was exceptional."

Izzo also lauded Appling's work pushing the ball in transition – giving flashes of the early season Appling.

"We begged him to push it all the time," Izzo said. "He did guard very well. That's the old Keith."

Dawson, who has played in four games since returning from a broken hand, had his highest point and rebound totals since his return.

"It gives us a tremendous boost when he's up with the easy baskets and around the rim and played the way he did defensively," Appling said.

Defense was at on display early, as the teams were sluggish out of the gate, but Dawson got the Spartans going with 10 first-half points.

Despite foul trouble for Payne, the Spartans pulled away when the senior forward went to the bench with two fouls with 8:41 left before halftime. The Spartans went on a 24-12 run to close the half and take a 40-22 lead into halftime.

"It was great that my teammates played hard without me," he said. "It just seemed like it gave them a boost of energy. It was great because I was on the side just cheering and was happy."

Payne spent much of the game in foul trouble and finished with five points in just 19 minutes.

Harris had 13 points and seven rebounds, while Valentine posted seven points, six rebounds and four assists.

"It was just good to be out there having fun," Harris said. "We placed some emphasis on it in practice this week, to improve our defense and our communication, and I feel like we placed a lot of energy on defense and that carried over to the offensive end.

"We were just playing how we played earlier in the season, which was good for us."

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