EAST LANSING - Gary Harris joked on Monday as Michigan State prepared for its first encounter of the season with Michigan that he thought he had enough knowledge of the intensity of a rivalry game.
From playing against his high school rival in Indiana, from his mother Joy (Holmes) Harris, who was an All-American at Purdue and could share the intensity of the Purdue-Indiana rivalry and from his teammates, upperclassmen who had been right smack in the middle of the heated war that is Michigan State-Michigan.
Apparently, it was knowledge well received because after missing his first two shots at the start of No. 8 MSU's 75-52 drubbing of No. 4/5 Michigan, the freshman shooting guard kicked it into high gear, with 3-point baskets at 14:57, 12:56 and 5:44 of the first half.
Harris finished the first half as the team's second-leading scorer with nine points before ending with 17 as the Spartans' leading scorer in his inaugural rivalry game outing.
"I've had a good feeling with my shot in these last few games,'' Harris said. "I just really like where my shot is right now. I'm very comfortable with it and when I'm open, I'm just letting it go.''
Not only did just letting it go lead to his forth-highest point total of the season - on 6-of-13 shooting, which included a 5-for-9 finish from beyond the arc - but he added a team-leading three steals in helping first-place MSU (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) force U-M (21-4, 8-4) into 16 turnovers that were converted into 15 Spartan points.
"Branden Dawson was the guy we played on (Tim) Hardaway a lot (but) we felt like Gary (Harris) had a better understanding of helping (on defense),'' MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "Harris learned what the rivalry was about (because) he spent everything he had."
Harris was part of an MSU backcourt tandem with junior guard Keith Appling that came into the game overshadowed by Michigan's duo of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
But by the end of the night, it was Harris and Appling, who combined to go 10-of-27 from the field for 28 points, who got the best of Hardaway and Burke, who finished a combined 8-of-22 for 20 points.
Burke and Hardaway had entered the game averaging a combined 34.2 points a game but were slowed by MSU's stifling attention to detail on screens set on the perimeter to free Wolverine shooters.
"The job that Gary Harris and Keith Appling did on two of the best guards in the country was incredible,'' Izzo said.
While Harris' shooting performance turned into the catalyst for a strong inside-outside performance on the offensive side of the ball that saw four Spartans finish in double figures, it was the tutelage Harris had been receiving from MSU assistant Dane Fife that seemed to have a lot to do with his smooth shooting on Tuesday night.
Despite playing with the remnants of back spasms, he had suffered against Illinois, Harris has also been getting a little too comfortable on the release of his shot.
So in warmups prior to the Purdue game and again before MSU faced Michigan on Tuesday, Fife fed Harris passes from different angles to make sure his release was true with little wasted motion.
"What I was really trying to do, because he was seeing all of his passes from the post out, was to get him some passes from the side just to get him a different look and angle,'' Fife said. "Gary's problem is that he gets a little to lax on his shot. It's not really anything mechanically, he just gets a little, lazy is probably not the right word, but he loses focus. So it was just something where I just wanted to make sure he was getting a different look and sustained focus.''
Harris only had eight points against Purdue, after finishing in double figures in three previous games. He obviously got his full rhythm back against the Wolverines.
"Coach Fife has been doing that the last few games. He's been getting me some shots by feeding it to me and I'm just trying to get it off (quicker) to get me in a rhythm for the kind of shots I'd be getting in the game.''
INSTANT SENSATION: Freshman forward Matt Costello couldn't have asked for a better debut in his first MSU-U-M game than his career-high eight point-six rebound performance.
Costello, whose previous high in points was six against Tuskegee back on Dec. 15th, where he also had a career-high seven boards in just seven minutes of play, was ecstatic after Tuesday night's game, especially after learning he had trended on Twitter during his performance.
"That's crazy. I just heard that. I didn't even know,'' Costello said in the lockerroom after the game.
Of course he wouldn't have known because he was shoulder-deep post battles with Wolverines.
Costello, who finished 3-for-3 from the field, and included a nice dunk, in his 11 minutes of play was just happy that he could contribute in one of the most important games of the year, eventhough it was unexpected.
"I know against Purdue I started to get a couple more minutes so I thought maybe I could (see some minutes against Michigan) but I just approached this game as, 'hey, this is a big game and I've got to cheer my team on,' and if I get in I've got to come in and do my job and see what happens. I had butterflies in my stomach and my heart was pounding fast but I knew that I had a job to do so you have to calm yourself down, play good defense, get rebounds and all that. Getting a rebound when I first came in gave me confidence to say, 'okay, you got one, so just play.'
"If my job is getting rebounds and getting putbacks, I'm fine with that as long as we're winning.''
One of his teammates didn't seemed surprised by his effort and contribution.
"You know, that is Mr. Basketball,'' Nix said with a smile, looking over at Costello. "No, really, Matt just came out playing as hard as he could, was solid and didn't worry about making mistakes.''
RESPONDING TO THE CHALLENGE: Keith Appling wasn't about to talk about the verbal sparring that went back and forth between he and Burke during Tuesday's showdown, choosing to respond with the politically-correct and evasive, 'Oh, it wasn't no interaction. You know, I mean basketball is a physical game (and) that's all I can say about that.''
But when his teammate, friend and former Pershing High School teammate Nix was asked if Appling was especially fired up for Tuesday's game after hearing the claims all season that Burke was the better point guard, Nix was a little more forthcoming.
"I think some of us take it personal and some of us don't know the rivalry (yet),'' Nix said. "I mean Michigan has a great program but Michigan State is just as great. But (Keith and Trey), they're competitive and they always get compared or they say Burke is better but Keith is my guy so I'm going to say he's better and he gave Burke what he could give him and Burke gave him what he could give him.''
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