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November 24, 2013

Oklahoma falls late to No. 1 Michigan State

NEW YORK — Oklahoma found a way to pull out an improbable win in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

The Sooners came within a few minutes of a huge victory in the championship game.

Keith Appling scored a career-high 27 points, including eight in the final 3:04 after the Sooners got within four points, and No. 1 Michigan State pulled away in the final minutes for an 87-76 victory Saturday night in the championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

“I am proud of our guys. I thought we battled to get back into it in the second half,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said.

The Sooners advanced to the title game with a 7-0 run over the final 32 seconds to beat Seton Hall 87-86. They couldn’t come up with anything like that in the final minutes Saturday because of Appling.

“It was a big challenge, but we didn’t get the result we wanted,” said Cameron Clark, who had a career-high 32 points on 11-for-17 shooting and also led the team with seven rebounds. “We will always go out there and work hard.”

Appling, who was 8 of 12 from the field, was selected tournament MVP and he lived up to the title.

“When I got back in there after sitting with my third foul I got more aggressive and was able to get the momentum shifted back our way,” the senior said.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo said he told Appling to take over under control.

“I told him not to settle for 3s,” Izzo said. “He got in the lane and made some tough shots. He’s such a fabulous athlete.”

It was another unimpressive win for the Spartans (6-0) since their victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky moved them up one spot to the top of the poll. They beat Columbia and Portland but didn’t pull away from either until the final minutes. They did handle Virginia Tech in the semifinals of this tournament but the championship game wasn’t like that at all.

“After we beat Kentucky and moved to No. 1 we’ve been getting everybody’s best shot,” Appling said. “They are coming at us for 40 minutes and we have to play hard for all 40 minutes.”

Izzo said this “will be another example of finding a way to win, but that gets a little worrisome too.”

The Sooners (4-1)  jumped ahead early, fell behind by as many as 18 points and then found a way to get within four points twice in the final 4 minutes before the Spartans were able to pull away once again.

Gary Harris had 21 points and Branden Dawson added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans, who shot 50 percent from the field (29 of 58), but they were 6 of 19 from 3-point range and 23 of 36 from the free throw line and committed 14 turnovers, five over their season average.

“We’re disappointed with the result in terms of not getting into the right column,” Kruger said. “At halftime we found a way to respond after not closing the half well. They’re disappointed, but they found out you have to do things better to beat the best team in the country.”

Oklahoma made its first six shots and nine of its first 11 from the field and took a 22-11 lead. The Spartans took advantage when the Sooners finally cooled down and went up by as many as 14 points by dominating at both ends of the court. They closed the half by outscoring Oklahoma 34-9 over the final 9 minutes and were up 45-31 at halftime.

“We got punched in the mouth early. We really did,” Izzo said. “They made shots, outworked us. ... We got the big lead, but between foul trouble and Gary Harris cramping up we were a little bit slight of people. I thought we showed character in figuring out a way to win.”

Almost everyone in Barclays Center felt it was just a matter of 20 minutes running off the clock to see how many points the Spartans would win by. The Sooners, who were down 53-35 2 minutes into the second half, weren’t thinking that and they took advantage of turnovers and questionable shots to go on another big run — this one 12-0 to get within 57-53 with 12:14 to play. Izzo called a timeout with 12:03 to play but that didn’t help the offense.

“I thought we battled to get back into it in the second half,” Kruger said. “Obviously that stretch in the first half was a lot to overcome and Michigan State is the type of ball club that can do that to you.”

Appling finally ended the Spartans’ 6:17 scoring drought with a three-point play with 10:01 to go and he followed an Oklahoma miss with a fast-break dunk to make it 62-53 with 9:35 left.

Oklahoma found its way to one more run to get within 73-69 and 75-71, but Appling came up with enough big plays down the stretch to keep the Spartans at No. 1 for at least one more week.

“We were moving the ball pretty well early,” Kruger said. “Cameron was making some shots and we got ourselves a lead. Then we stopped moving the ball like we needed to and we let their defense take control for the last few minutes of the first half. We have to be able to work on that and move the ball better, make better plays for each other. During that stretch you have to credit Michigan State because they had a lot to do with that.”

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