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Emotional Izzo, focused Spartans put distractions and Terps aside in 74-68 victory

Michigan State men's basketball bead coach Tom Izzo talks about his team beating the Terps, 74-68, as well as the controversy affecting him and his team. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

COLLEGE PARK — The past few days proved too much for Tom Izzo.

After the final buzzer sounded Sunday at Xfinity Center to signify the end of his sixth-ranked men's basketball team's 74-68 victory over Maryland, Michigan State's Hall of Fame coach was clearly emotional for what normally would have been a run-of-the-mill road win over the reeling Terps.

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Izzo's emotions spilled over several times during a sometimes contentious postgame news conference when he was challenged by an ESPN reporter over eight-year-old rape allegations against a former player and student assistant.

Neither former star Adreian Payne nor Travis Walton was ever charged. ESPN 's "Outside The Lines" reported on an alleged rape by Payne and Keith Appling in 2010, as well as Walton allegedly punching one woman in the face and raping another that year.

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Michigan State coach Tom Izzo signals from the sideline in the first half of Sunday's game against Maryland.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo signals from the sideline in the first half of Sunday's game against Maryland. (Kenneth K. Lam / TNS)

It’s been hard to focus in on basketball. When I do, I feel guilty. There are so many things you don't know.


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"It's been hard to focus in on basketball," Izzo said toward the end of the news conference "When I do, I feel guilty. There are so many things you don't know. I feel guilty talking about anything else. And those women that I watched [who were victims of sexual abuse by former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar]. I'm sure it was draining at the end for me."

Izzo, who described himself as an "emotional guy," said he was proud of the way his team responded.

"I was proud of the job they [his players] did and I hope people rally around them," said Izzo, whose Spartans will host Penn State on Wednesday night. "And I hope we'll rally around people that need us."

Sophomore guard Cassius Winston, who scored all 13 points in the second half after two quick fouls led to his going scoreless in the first half, said the Spartans have become closer as a team while the controversy surrounding their coach has grown, including reports that he might quit.

"It's been crazy," Winston said. "Anytime something happens where there's a lot happening around us, we just keep it tight. This is just really a family. We've got Coach Izzo's back, and he has ours. Out there, that was just us proving it. We've had a little adversity. We were in their place. A lot of things could have happened, but we found a way to stick together and fight through this."

Maryland men's basketball team has a 13-point lead at the half against sixth-ranked Michigan State with a chance to improve their fading NCAA tournament hopes, but give it all away.

Izzo is clearly fighting to keep his once-pristine reputation intact.

Asked by ESPN's Tisha Thompson why he allowed Walton to continue in his role after charges by a former female student were pending, Izzo said: "As I said before, we'll cooperate with any investigation and I always have. We've done it before and we'll do it moving forward. But that's all I'm going to say on it."

Pressed on why Walton left the program that year, Izzo said: "I don't know what you mean. He graduated. … To be honest I don't know remember why he left. I know he went to Europe to play. ... I'm not going to answer any questions that aren't pertaining to basketball or things I'm not going to talk about right now."

Asked whether he had any regrets about the way his program has handled allegations such as these in the past, Izzo's tone sharpened.

"I've cooperated [with] every investigation," he said. "Every one. And I will continue to cooperate with every investigation. Every one."

University of Maryland men's head coach Mark Turgeon talks about the 74-68 loss to Michigan State. (Kenneth K. Lam. Baltimore Sun video)

A reporter from Michigan who covers the team asked Izzo whether his team's comeback from a 13-point halftime deficit had something to do with what has transpired off the court or the raucous atmosphere at Maryland's first sellout of the season.

"I thought the atmosphere here was phenomenal," he said. "You know it's very hard for me to say it's because of what's going with what's going on with those people than my guys have been through. This is something that affects them.

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"But don't feel sorry for me or them. There's 140-something women we'll feel more sorry for. I thought we did our best job of trying to deal with all the distractions, going on the road and dealing with the distractions of the opposing teams and their fans, and they have an incredible fan base here."

Trailing 37-24 at halftime, the Spartans opened the second half with an 18-4 run to take their first lead of the game. Eventually building their lead to as many as eight points, Michigan State watched Maryland cut its deficit to 63-61 before the Spartans made 11 of 12 free throws in the final 52 seconds to hold off the charging Terps.

A chance at a signature win eludes the Terps again, making their chances of reaching the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight time seem even more distant.

"Those who've followed us for years, we've been kind of an average free-throw shooting team more often than not," said Izzo, whose team finished 19 of 23 overall. "We said it this summer that free throws were going to be a big part of our winning big games, and we needed every free throw to win them."

Izzo, who said after Friday night's home win over Wisconsin that he doesn't plan to resign, as university president Lou Anna Simon was forced to do last week, or retire, as athletic director Mark Hollis did, was asked whether he wanted his players to "pay attention" to the controversy that grew out out of the Nassar sex abuse scandal. Nassar, the disgraced former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison last week after more than 150 women and girls said in court that he sexually abused them over the past two decades.

"I want [the basketball players] to pay attention. We've got a lot of work ahead of us," Izzo said. "And I hope the day comes when we can be a real, real part of the healing process face-to-face and helping. I didn't tell them to put up any walls. I said you've got to watch what you say."

And what should his players say to women going forward?

"Now there's a good question," Izzo said, with more than a touch of sarcasm. "I tell them every day, at the end of every practice in the huddle, we go over an academic thing, a couple of social things and a basketball thing. And that takes place every single day and it takes place and it takes place after every single game and every single trip."

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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