ATLANTA -- Keith Appling scored 19 points and took command down the stretch, scoring off a brilliant drive with 13.5 seconds left that carried No. 21 Michigan State to a 67-64 upset of No. 7 Kansas on Tuesday night.
The Spartans (1-1) rebounded from a season-opening loss on the other side of the Atlantic to Connecticut. They kept up their road show with a doubleheader at the Georgia Dome -- site of this season’s Final Four -- featuring four of the nation’s best teams. No. 3 Kentucky faced No. 9 Duke in the second game.
The Jayhawks (1-1) led 59-54 with 5 minutes remaining, showing signs of taking control in a game that was tight all the way. But Michigan State rallied behind its brilliant guards.
Freshman Gary Harris scored 18 points, including back-to-back baskets that sparked an 8-0 run. Appling, the leading returning scorer for the Spartans, took over from there.
He confused the Kansas defense playing off a screen, winding up with an open 3-pointer with 1:35 remaining that pushed Michigan State to a 65-61 lead. Ben McLemore converted a three-point play, but Travis Releford missed a potential tying 3 at the buzzer.
Elijah Johnson led Kansas with 16 points.
Kansas center Jeff Withey, who played so well in last season’s NCAA tournament, wasn’t much of a factor against the Spartans. He was held to eight points and seven rebounds, along with four turnovers.
But the big man
Not comfortable enough.
Michigan State scored the next eight points. Harris swished a jumper, then darted into the lane to flip in a one-hander. Derrick Nix hit a pair of free throws on separate trips to the line, putting the Spartans ahead. Then, after Withey fumbled away an errant pass from Johnson, Branden Dawson hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Johnson finally snapped the run, drawing a foul on Harris and hitting both free throws.
But Appling picked up a screen, darted away when Withey popped out to help, then wound up with an open look from beyond the arc when Withey turned back for the lane and got tangled up with his own man.
Appling’s shot from the top of the circle was right on the mark, pushing the lead to 65-61.
Then, after McLemore’s three-point play, Appling drove past Withey with a left-handled dribble, cradled the ball and banked in the shot between two defenders that left Kansas with no choice but to try a 3.
Releford got a look as time expired, but his shot clanked off the side of the rim.
The globe-trotting Spartans opened the season against UConn at an Air Force hanger in Germany. They were still a long way from home but at least playing in a bit more of a conventional venue, albeit one that is normally used by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Kansas is hoping to get back to Atlanta in April and go one win farther than last season, when the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky in the national championship game.
The game was tight all the way, with a dozen ties and 11 lead chances. Kansas had the biggest lead, a 45-38 edge on Naadir Tharpe’s 3-pointer with 12:02 remaining.
Kansas led 35-32 lead at the break and went to the locker room on a bit of a high, spurred on by a thunderous dunk by Jamari Traylor in the final minute. Johnson darted into the lane and missed, but Traylor, coming up from behind, slammed it through with his right hand to spark the Kansas contingent.
Harris led the Spartans in the first half with 11 points. Johnson and McLemore had seven apiece for the Jayhawks before the break.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963