IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Keith Appling's four crucial free throws Thursday night weren't nearly as exciting as his late basket in Michigan State's win over Kansas back in November.
Still, Appling showed why the little things make all the difference between winning and losing on the road in the Big Ten.
Branden Dawson scored a career-high 17 points, including a late steal and tiebreaking dunk, and Appling went 4 for 4 from the line in the final 20 seconds as the 22nd-ranked Spartans sneaked past Iowa 62-59.
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Gary Harris added 14 points despite hurting his left shoulder in the first half for the Spartans (13-3, 2-1), who hung on for their eighth win in nine games.
"There's a lot of things we need to get better at. But that was a big win on the road, especially the way we played," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Dawson provided the game-changing play when he ripped the ball away from Iowa freshman Mike Gesell and gave Michigan State a 58-56 lead with 49 seconds left.
But Appling, whose acrobatic layup with 14 seconds left beat the Jayhawks two months ago, provided the buffer with four straight from the foul line.
"I said, `Keith, it's going to be like Kansas. I'm putting it in your hands. You've got to make some decisions,"' Izzo said.
By contrast, Hawkeyes freshman Anthony Clemmons missed a free throw that would have tied it with 12 seconds to go. He also airballed a 3-pointer at the buzzer as Iowa (11-5, 0-3) lost its third straight.
The Hawkeyes were short-handed without Devyn Marble - and none too pleased about Michigan State's 21-15 edge at the free throw line.
Zach McCabe led Iowa with 15 points and fellow reserve Melsahn Basabe added 14. But the Hawkeyes could've used a healthy Marble, who is sixth in the Big Ten with 15.5 points a game.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Marble, who sprained his ankle this week in practice, is "iffy" for Sunday's game at Northwestern.
"It was tough offensively to get into the kind of rhythm we needed. They are a very physical team defensively, and we needed a guy who can break his man down and get to the rim and get to the free throw line. Of course, I don't know if anyone would have gotten to the free throw line most of the night," McCaffery said.
For whatever reason, Michigan State and Iowa have made a habit of teaming up for some ugly basketball in recent years.
The play was brutal at times on Thursday.
The Spartans and Hawkeyes slogged through a series of sloppy possessions early in the second half, with Michigan State slowly chipping away at Iowa's slim lead.
The Spartans finally took their first lead, 43-42, on a nifty layup by Appling off yet another Iowa turnover with just under 9 minutes left. Harris followed with a 3, and Adreian Payne drove the lane and threw down an emphatic one-handed dunk to put the Spartans ahead 48-45 with 6:15 left.
Michigan State blew the lead but tied it back up at 56 on Harris' three free throws with 1:04 left.
Appling had 12 points for Michigan State, which forced 18 turnovers.
McCaffery openly questioned his team's effort following an embarrassing 95-67 loss at Michigan last Sunday. The Hawkeyes got the message, but simply couldn't sustain their early energy.
Iowa opened with a 7-0 run and hit nine of its first 12 shots in building an early 10-point advantage. Aaron White - whose poor defense against the Wolverines was a particular sore spot for McCaffery - then jumped a passing lane for a transition dunk and a 24-12 lead.
White had 11 points. But the Hawkeyes shot just 4 of 16 from 3-point range and let Michigan State get within 28-24 by halftime.
"We didn't play with any toughness, and that's disappointing. Offensively we played with no toughness whatsoever. Defensively we did. On the glass, we did. But you have the other end of the floor," McCaffery said.
Michigan State has a pair of very winnable games coming up; Nebraska at home on Sunday and at Penn State next Wednesday, before a showdown with No. 15 Ohio State in East Lansing on Jan. 19.
But the Spartans know they can't let up - even if the path seems clearer for a couple of weeks.
"It's going to be like that every night, pretty much. We were able to reach down, fight through adversity and come out with the win," Appling said.