INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Izzo sent in a sub for Durrell Summers with 15 minutes, 21 seconds left in the game Thursday. When Summers reached the Michigan State sideline, he looked longingly for a chair at the end of the bench.
No vacancy. He was going to have to take the only open seat -- right next to his exasperated head coach.
The two had done this dance too many times throughout this miserable season. Summers would play poorly. Izzo would bench him. He’d admonish, instruct, cajole, yell, plead … anything to get through to his talented senior guard.
Nothing much seemed to work. A guy who made big contributions on back-to-back Final Four teams floundered through the second half of the season, mirroring the Spartans’ profound struggles.
That continued in Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday against Iowa in a do-or-die Big Ten tournament game for the Spartans. A loss would doom their NCAA tourney chances. A win would keep them alive -- maybe even cement the bid.
Michigan State led 40-39 when Izzo yanked Summers for getting his third foul. At that point Summers had zero points, one rebound, no assists, no steals, four missed shots and three turnovers to his credit.
But Izzo won’t give up on his upperclassmen. So after his 957th attempt to reach Summers there on the bench, he sent him back in with 12:40 left to play.
The transformation was not immediate, but it was emphatic. By game’s end, Summers was one of the heroes of a 66-61 Michigan State triumph.
Draymond Green had the big numbers: 21 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Kalin Lucas chipped in 11 points and four assists. Keith Appling had 10. But nobody contributed more timely points than Summers.
He scored the Spartans’ final seven points -- a huge 3-pointer and four icy free throws. On the 3, he was wide open but hesitated for a moment before letting it fly from in front of the Michigan State bench with the Spartans clinging to a one-point lead.
“Guys were yelling from the bench, ‘Shoot it! Shoot it!,’“ Summers said.
He shot it. He swished it. It proved to be the winning points.
Summers also had a steal and a skywalking defensive rebound in the final 25 seconds. He finished with nine points, three boards, two steals and an immeasurable sense of relief.
“It was great,” teammate Delvon Roe said of seeing Summers step up in crunch time. “I was talking to Durrell the whole game. I kept telling him, ‘You’re good. You’re good.’“
Amazing that a guy who scored 21 big-time points in the regional final last year against Tennessee needed that kind of reassurance, but Summers did. In an eight-game stretch from Feb. 2 through March 2, he averaged fewer than six points and made just 6 of 29 3-point shots.
“There are no secrets that it’s been a disappointing year for him and a disappointing year for us,” Izzo said. “And I thought he struggled during the game, just fumbling the ball and doing some things. It all means he’s pressing. Sometimes if you just do a couple things to feel good about yourself, you can get over that. …
“That last shot was big. But I’m not kidding you, the rebounds were just about as big. … Hopefully it motivates him because if his buddy [Kalin Lucas] is able to go [Friday against Purdue], it probably won’t be at full speed, and we’re going to need some more bodies.”
Ah, yes, Lucas. The injury-plagued guard rolled his right ankle during the second half -- the same ankle he injured against Purdue a couple of weeks ago. Last year in the NCAA tournament he tore an Achilles tendon. It’s been a tough slog for Lucas this season, too.
He sat in the Spartans locker room afterward with an ice bag on his right ankle and vowed to play against the Boilermakers, even though he could barely get around the court for the final 13 minutes against Iowa. A few feet away, Roe had ice on his chronically inflamed right knee but vowed he’d be ready to take on Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson.
“I feel good,” Roe said, because the kid is hard-wired to be tough and never complain.
Make no mistake, Michigan State is hurting heading into a matchup with a top-10 team that has beaten it twice already this season. The odds are long -- but no team seems to respond to the pressure of tournament play like the Spartans.
“It’s March time,” Lucas said. “March time is one-and-done time. We know if we lose the next game we’re going home, and we don’t want to go home.”
Durrell Summers, of all unlikely suspects, kept the Spartans from going home Thursday. They’ll need him even more Friday.