AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Memphis Coach Josh Pastner spent part of Friday afternoon hurling every compliment imaginable towards Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Pastner insisted that the Spartans coach could run for governor and should be in the Hall of Fame right now.
On the sideline Saturday, Pastner leaped in the air and flailed his legs to implore his Tigers on defense, the sort of histrionics that has endeared Izzo to the masses. Pastner even admitted to stealing Izzo’s rebounding drills from a coaching video he bought years ago.
But there is no imitation for the real thing. Powered by a two-headed monster inside and a dynamic freshman, No. 3 seed Michigan State bested sixth-seeded Memphis, 70-48, in a South region round-of-32 game at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Spartans moved on to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in sixth seasons, and the 11th time since Izzo took over the program in 1995.
Freshman Gary Harris led Michigan State with a career-high 23 points, including 16 in the first half. But just like in their win over 13th-seeded Valparaiso on Thursday, it was the Spartans’ big men who paved the way for another victory.
Junior Adreian Payne, who apologized to his teammates after a six-turnover showing against the Crusaders, proved to be a multidimensional menace and finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Pastner said after the game that Michigan State is “going to the Final Four if he plays like that.”
Senior Derrick Nix, meanwhile, had a second straight impressive performance, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The Spartans have outrebounded their first two tournament opponents by a total of 46. They also shot 50 percent from the field on Saturday, more than enough to overcome 18 turnovers.
“This has been the greatest weekend we’ve had of the year,” Izzo said. “We’re a hard scout because the head coach doesn’t know who to expect it from all the time. So I don’t know why the opponent would.”
But it wasn’t all rosy for his squad.
With Michigan State in the midst 13-3 run to begin the second half, Nix and Spartans point guard Keith Appling, roommates and former high school teammates at Detroit’s Pershing High, got in a towel-whipping spat while Izzo drew up a play in the huddle. The two had to be separated, but it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Out of the timeout, Appling fed Payne for a thunderous alley-oop slam that brought a sellout crowd out of their seats and Michigan State’s lead kept climbing from there.
“We all want to win so bad and it was just a fiery moment in the huddle. Nothing too serious. At the end of the day, we’re all brothers,” said Appling, who finished with two points in 28 minutes. “From that point, pretty much everyone played better. I think it helped us.”
Appling left the game with eight minutes remaining in regulation after aggravating a sprained shoulder he initially suffered against Minnesota last month. He did not return. But Appling was confident he would be available for Michigan State’s Sweet 16 game next week.
He wasn’t needed Saturday. Though Memphis guard Geron Johnson finished with 16 points and hit four three-pointers, the Tigers shot just 29.7 percent from the field and dug themselves an early hole to begin the game by missing 15 of their first 19 shots against a ferocious Michigan State defense.
Harris then scored nine points during an 11-3 Spartan surge, which ended just moments after several of his teammates collectively slapped the hardwood while on defense to incite an arena full of Michigan State fans.
The run forced Pastner to use his third timeout, but the Tigers found their bearings on the fast break, and at halftime they trailed by just three points.
That, though, would be as close as Memphis got, and Pastner became just another feather in Izzo’s cap.
Photos: Scenes from the tournament