Somebody had to step up for No. 1 Michigan State as it couldn't shake Oklahoma.
It was Appling.
He scored a career-high 27 points, including eight in the final 3:04 after the Sooners got within four points, and the Spartans pulled away in the final minutes for an 87-76 victory Saturday night in the championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Appling, who was 8 of 12 from the field, was selected tournament MVP and he lived up to the title.
"When I got back in there after sitting with my third foul I got more aggressive and was able to get the momentum shifted back our way," the senior said.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo said he told Appling to take over under control.
"I told him not to settle for 3s," Izzo said. "He got in the lane and made some tough shots. He's such a fabulous athlete."
It was another unimpressive win for the Spartans (6-0) since their victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky moved them up one spot to the top of the poll. They beat Columbia and Portland but didn't pull away from either until the final minutes. They did handle Virginia Tech in the semifinals of this tournament but the championship game wasn't like that at all.
"After we beat Kentucky and moved to No. 1 we've been getting everybody's best shot," Appling said. "They are coming at us for 40 minutes and we have to play hard for all 40 minutes."
Izzo said this "will be another example of finding a way to win but that gets a little worrisome too."
The Sooners (4-1) jumped ahead early, fell behind by as many as 18 points and then found a way to get within four points twice in the final 4 minutes before the Spartans were able to pull away once again.
Gary Harris had 21 points and Branden Dawson added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans, who shot 50 percent from the field (29 of 58), but they were 6 of 19 from 3-point range and 23 of 36 from the free throw line and committed 14 turnovers, five over their season average.
Cameron Clark had a career-high 32 points for Oklahoma, which kept chipping away at deficits after losing their big early lead.
"We're disappointed with the result in terms of not getting into the right column," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "At halftime we found a way to respond after not closing the half well. They're disappointed but they found out you have to do things better to beat the best team in the country."
Oklahoma made its first six and nine of its first 11 shots from the field and took a 22-11 lead. The Spartans took advantage when the Sooners finally cooled down and went up by as many as 14 points by dominating at both ends of the court. They closed the half by outscoring Oklahoma 34-9 over the final 9 minutes and were up 45-31 at halftime.
"We got punched in the mouth early. We really did," Izzo said. "They made shots, outworked us. ... We got the big lead but between foul trouble and Gary Harris cramping up we were a little bit slight of people. I thought we showed character in figuring out a way to win."
Almost everyone in Barclays Center felt it was just a matter of 20 minutes running off the clock to see how many points the Spartans would win by. The Sooners, who were down 53-35 2 minutes into the second half, weren't thinking that and they took advantage of turnovers and questionable shots to go on another big run -- this one 12-0 to get within 57-53 with 12:14 to play. Izzo called a timeout with 12:03 to play but that didn't help the offense.
"I thought we battled to get back into it in the second half," Kruger said. "Obviously that stretch in the first half was a lot to overcome and Michigan State is the type of ball club that can do that to you."
Appling finally ended the Spartans' 6:17 scoring drought with a three-point play with 10:01 to go and he followed an Oklahoma miss with a fast-break dunk to make it 62-53 with 9:35 left.
Oklahoma found its way to one more run to get within 73-69 and 75-71, but Appling came up with enough big plays down the stretch to keep the Spartans at No. 1 for at least one more week.
"I'm happy we won," Appling said, "but our coaches and us have a standard about how we play and we didn't do it the whole second half."
The Sooners advanced to the title game with a 7-0 run over the final 32 seconds to beat Seton Hall 87-86. The Spartans had an easier trip, riding Payne's career-high 29 points along with 10 rebounds in a 96-77 victory over Virginia Tech.
Payne had four points on 1-for-6 shooting in the championship game.
"It was A.P.'s night to struggle," Izzo said. "It should be a good learning experience for him."