Nix sparks Spartans in win over Longhorns
Michigan State center scores 25 points, 11 rebounds
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Rick Barnes hadn’t seen a reason to double-team Michigan State center Derrick Nix. Neither had anyone else, but a lot of teams will when they look at Saturday’s game tape.
Nix scored a career-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, as the nation’s No. 20 team surged past Texas 67-56 in its last home game of 2012.
“Tom has to like what he got out of Nix,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said of a player who was averaging 7.5 points per game. “He did whatever he wanted. Those were Player of the Year numbers. I know we haven’t had anyone dominate us that way.”
Nix was 7-for-10 from the field and 11-for-13 at the line, a major improvement for a 64.9-percent foul shooter. He started the game by swishing a jump hook and never let up in a career-high 32 minutes.
“Nix and I have a love-hate relationship; I love to hate him sometimes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of a player who lost 70 pounds and overcame an arrest to become a captain. “He gets frustrated with himself sometimes, too. One of the hardest things to do is take criticism. But he has grown up a lot.”
Keith Appling had 14 points and Adreian Payne added 13 for the Spartans (11-2), who stayed perfect in six December games as they move on to Big Ten play.
“I didn’t get a scholarship here because they wanted to give it to me,” Nix said. “I had to be doing something right. Today, they didn’t double-team. I hit my first shot and tried to dominate the rest of the day.”
Julien Lewis scored 16 points and Sheldon McClellan had 13 for the Longhoms (7-5), who couldn’t match the efficiency of their 85-67 win over North Carolina Wednesday night.
“We had opportunities up until the last four minutes to win the game,” Barnes said. “Our spacing wasn’t good. But the big thing was we had to get a better effort for our post players. Nix went to work in there.”
Texas had a chance to take a 42-41 lead but McClellan missed two free throws after a technical on Nix. The Spartans promptly grabbed a three-point lead on a jumper by Payne but missed a chance to build their advantage when Appling missed two of three foul shots and Payne was called for offensive goaltending. They took advantage on a second chance when two Nix free throws and an Appling 3 made it 49-40.
“It was disrespectful to step across my face that way,” Nix said of a tumble-and tie-up led to some words he shouldn’t have said. “That was an Allen Iverson move. I think I deserved a tech. But we responded.”
It was 54-44 when the Longhorns cut the lead in half. A three-point play by Ioannis Papapetrou made a four-point game, and his jumper as the shot clock expired cut the margin to 56-54. After Payne and Appling built the lead back to six and Texas’ Jonathan Holmes was called for charging, Nix added a free throw to build the lead back to seven.
Appling missed a pair at the line but Papapetrou did, too. Michigan State protected its lead it the final minute as Nix fittingly grabbed the game’s last rebound, giving his team a 36-32 edge on the boards. That and 17 second-half free throws helped immensely.
“We can’t be that easy to score against,” Barnes said. “We missed too many free throws (10 of 24) and had 18 turnovers. Javan (Felix) had four of them but was probably responsible for 10.”
With two freshmen and three sophomore starting, the Longhorns fell behind 12-4 in their first true road game this season. They began 1-for-9 from the field against the Big Ten leaders in field goal percentage defense, then got their bearings with a pair of 3s. A 10-1 run put Texas up 14-13, and 10 first-half free throws helped the visitors lead 33-28 at halftime. McClellan was 6-for-6 at the line in an 11-point half.
The Spartans were 0-for-7 from long range before the break but stayed in the game with the best half of Nix’s career. The team’s lone senior had 14 points, half of MSU’s output and three more he had scored than in any game this season. He also grabbed nine rebounds, more than twice as many as any Longhorn, and helped his team to a 19-13 edge on the boards.
Texas, the last non-conference opponent to win in Breslin Center exactly two years earlier, came in leading the nation in field goal percentage defense at .330. It turned up the tempo, then dropped back into a zone to start the second half. But that didn’t help against Nix, who sparked a 10-0 run to give the Spartans a 36-33 lead.
“We’ve just got to be composed and keep playing,” Lewis said. “You can’t let the crowd get to you. But we weren’t executing nearly as well in the second half.”
The Spartans begin conference action at Minnesota on Dec. 31, two days after the Longhorns host Rice. After an up-and-down week with an alumni reunion game in Jenison Field House and a recruiting disappointment with Duke-bound Jabari Parker, Izzo can smile on Christmas, then get back to practice.
“That’s one good basketball team we played today,” Izzo said. “They’d be really good with (Myck) Kabongo. I was disappointed by the NCAA ruling and for Rick. When I watched the way he cheered on the bench Wednesday night, I’d have given him a big hug if he’d been here. He reminded me of Mateen Cleaves.”