On Thursday night, Michigan State senior Adreian Payne proved that he needed no slow workup back to great performances after returning from a nagging foot injury that kept him out for weeks and weeks.
Payne had 20 points and 14 rebounds in a monster effort, along with the rest of the No. 9-ranked Spartans (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten), as MSU rolled over Northwestern (12-13, 5-7) by a score of 85-70. For the first time in a while, the hallowed halls of the Breslin Center in East Lansing were lit up with unencumbered glee - even from the likes of head coach Tom Izzo, who was flat-out marveled by his star senior's performance.
"It's amazing," Izzo said of Payne's performance. "Here's a kid that two or three years ago couldn't get up and down the floor more than 15-18 minutes a game. Now he's carrying our team. I'm proud of him."
With the win, Michigan State stays tied at the top of the Big Ten alongside in-state rival Michigan. Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State fall behind in the rankings at the No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 spots with 7-4, 7-5, 6-6 rankings respectively.
One of the biggest motivating factors for Payne has been 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, a young girl fighting cancer, with whom Payne has become close with in the past few weeks. After the Spartans' win, he looked and saw young Lacey sitting close to the court cheering for her favorite team.
"I haven't seen her yet, but she'll be out there in a few minutes," Payne said right after the game. "It's always good to see her smile that way."
Sophomore phenom, Gary Harris, who seems to have cooled off as of late, added 14 points in the effort and showed a tenacity that had been lacking in his last two games. Harris shot terribly during the battle against Wisconsin last Sunday, but found more of his footing on his home turf against the Wildcats.
As for those on the injury roster for the Spartans, Izzo said he hopes to get Keith Appling back within a week from a nagging wrist injury that has sidelined the young player, as well as hoping to get Branden Dawson back not too far after that after the player broke his hand after slamming it down on a table during a frustrating film review.
"I'm hoping sometime in the mid-20s or early-20s of this month, we'll get Branden back," Izzo said.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins took the loss with grace, adding that he thinks that if the Spartans were playing with a full roster, they'd have nothing holding them back.
"When healthy, I truly believe they're the best team in the country," Collins said. "They're loaded. I hope they can get healthy."
You can follow MSU writer, Michael Ferro, at twitter.com/MichaelFerro.