IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Jess Settles walked through the Carver-Hawkeye Arena tunnel moments after Michigan State defied logic and basic math to stop Iowa, he simply shook his head.
The Spartans, dinged up like a stock car swapping paint with lapped traffic all race long, found a way to do it again.
No Adreian Payne, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder? Still win. No Branden Dawson, a 35-game starter a season ago? Still win. Keith Appling’s right wrist tucked into a brace after the game? Iowa shoots 23 more free throws? Rowdy, sold-out building?
Settles, the former all-Big Ten player at Iowa, marveled at the Michigan State that limped into Iowa City on Tuesday — and what it might look like when tournament time arrives — after a 71-69 overtime barometer of flat-out toughness.
“Unbelievable,” Settles said. “You get all those guys back, that’s a Final Four team.”
Again. It’s already happened six times under coach Tom Izzo, after all.
It felt like a clinic in Michigan State being, well, Michigan State. The Spartans came into the game ranked No. 7 in the country, compared to Iowa’s spot at No. 15. In Las Vegas circles, though, Iowa was favored — in large part because of all the health-care mountains Izzo and Co. find themselves climbing these days.
Payne sat out for his sixth straight game with an injured right foot, while Dawson is sharing space along the bench with a broken hand.
For context: In the recent games without Payne, the Spartans improved to an astounding 5-1.
Iowa held Gary Harris, the guard USA TODAY named its preseason Big Ten player of the year, to nine points. Still win.
Michigan State, again and always, finds a way: Matt Costello assembles a career-best night with 11 points and 12 rebounds, the Spartans survive five players with four fouls, Russell Byrd hits the shot of his life — a 3-point dagger while buried in the corner with :30 left in overtime.
This is the kind of grit and resilience Iowa wants. It’s the kind of grit and resilience Iowa has yet to truly find.
“I just didn’t think we were tough enough,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We weren’t tough — at all.”
Michigan State, for its part, finds a way.
Defensively, the Spartans held Iowa without a basket for nearly 15 minutes — covering the last 10 minutes of regulation and nearly all of overtime. Iowa contributed to that mind-blowing stat, without a doubt, but there’s also little question about how effective Michigan State was when it mattered most.
Hunting for excuses from Izzo, after all the bumps and bruises? Try again.
“I didn’t talk about being tired — I’ll tell you that,” Izzo said. “I said, ‘We don’t have time to be tired.’”
On Iowa’s end, Devyn Marble played with purpose and poise — as he so often does — on the way to 21 points. When things were being decided, though, the rest of Michigan State’s moving parts trumped Iowa’s other moving parts.
Sometimes, luck intervenes.
Byrd had struggled so much that Izzo even admitted that his wife asked why the coach stuck with his player. When a shot had the potential to inflate one bench and deflate the other, Byrd drained it from a tiny corner of the baseline.
Great programs, though, carve out plenty of their own luck.
In the first game pitting ranked teams at Carver-Hawkeye since Iowa faced Michigan in February 2006, the Big Ten’s most established, consistent and reliable program found the answers.
“We learned that despite adversity, we can still come out and compete — simple as that,” Appling said.
It makes a person uncork a Settles-esque shake of the head at what kind of handful the Spartans could be as spring nears.
Michigan State continues to navigate the rugged Big Ten schedule with a bonus, as other players are gaining time on the floor, experience and confidence. As if there’s any of that last element lacking in East Lansing most seasons.
“When it’s all said and done, I think it’s really going to help them,” McCaffery said.
The atmosphere on Tuesday caused Izzo to pledge that a gaggle of bright days remains for Iowa.
“The place was back, you know, the Tom Davis days,” Izzo said of the NCAA runs under the Hawkeyes’ former coach. “I thought that place was hoppin’. … They’ll be back, raising havoc — I promise you that.”
Here’s another promise: So will Michigan State. Like always.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller