ATLANTA – Looking to bounce back from a season-opening loss, Michigan State turned to its top returning scorer from last season.
Keith Appling came through.
Hitting a pair of huge shots down the stretch — one from beyond the 3-point arc, the other on an acrobatic drive — Appling carried the No. 21 Spartans to a 67-64 upset of No. 7 Kansas on Tuesday night.
"The offense was kind of stagnant, so I wanted to make a play the best way I possible could," said Appling, who led Michigan State with 19 points. "From there, it was all she wrote."
The Spartans (1-1) opened with a surprising loss to Connecticut on the other side of the Atlantic. Their road show moved from Germany to a doubleheader at the Georgia Dome — site of this season's Final Four — featuring four of the nation's best teams. No. 3 Kentucky faced No. 9 Duke in the second game.
The Jayhawks (1-1) led 59-54 with 5 minutes remaining, showing signs of taking control in a game that was tight all the way. But Michigan State rallied behind its brilliant guards.
"We did some good things," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It's just that games are decided in the last five minutes. And they were better in the last five."
Freshman Gary Harris scored 18 points for the Spartans, including back-to-back baskets that sparked an 8-0 run. Appling, who averaged 11.4 points last season, took over from there.
He 6-foot-1 junior picked up a screen, darted away when 7-footer Jeff Withey popped out to help, then wound up with an open look from beyond the arc when Withey turned back for the lane and got tangled up with his own man.
Appling's shot from the top of the circle was right on the mark, pushing the lead to 65-61 with 1:35 remaining.
Ben McLemore gave Kansas a chance, converting a three-point play after a needless foul by Denzel Valentine. But Appling drove past Withey at the other hand with a left-handled dribble, cradled the ball and banked in a shot between two defenders with 13.5 seconds to go.
That left Kansas with no choice but to try a 3. Travis Releford got a look as time expired, but his shot clanked off the side of the rim.
Elijah Johnson led Kansas with 16 points. Withey, who played so well in last season's NCAA tournament, wasn't much of a factor against the Spartans. He was held to eight points and seven rebounds, along with four turnovers.
Michigan State's bulky big man, Derrick Nix, held his own against Withey with eight points and rebounds.
"Nix is a big guy, that's for sure," Withey said. "He's really strong. He's tough to guard."
The 7-footer did knock down a hook at the 5-minute mark, giving the Jayhawks what amounted to a comfortable lead in this one — five points.
Not comfortable enough.
Michigan State scored the next eight points. Harris swished a jumper, then darted into the lane to flip in a one-hander. Nix hit a pair of free throws on separate trips to the line, putting the Spartans ahead. Then, after Withey fumbled away an errant pass from Johnson, Branden Dawson hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Johnson finally snapped the run, drawing a foul on Harris and hitting both free throws.
But the senior guard also missed a big jumper in the closing minutes and felt he let his team down.
"I put that all on me," Johnson said. "Coach put the ball in my hands and I didn't do a great job."
The globe-trotting Spartans opened the season against UConn at an Air Force hanger in Germany. They were still a long way from home but at least playing in a bit more of a conventional venue, albeit one that is normally used by the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"We got a little bit of our pride and character back after not playing well over there," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "The trip wasn't easy. It shows we have a lot of character."
Kansas is hoping to get back to Atlanta in April and go one win farther than last season, when the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky in the national championship game.
The game was close throughout, with a dozen ties and 11 lead chances. Kansas had the biggest lead, a 45-38 edge on Naadir Tharpe's 3-pointer with 12:02 remaining.
Kansas led 35-32 lead at the half and went to the locker room on a bit of a high, spurred on by a thunderous dunk by Jamari Traylor in the final minute. Johnson darted into the lane and missed, but Traylor, coming up from behind, slammed it through with his right hand to spark the Kansas contingent.
Harris led the Spartans in the first half with 11 points. Johnson and McLemore had seven apiece for the Jayhawks before the break.
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