LAS VEGAS - The games the Michigan Mustangs have played during pool play are for all intents and purposes exhibition games and have no bearing on which bracket, seed, or opponent the premier Adidas basketball program in Michigan will play when the Adidas Super 64 basketball tournament moves from pool into bracket play.
But for members of the Michigan Mustangs including future Spartans Keith Appling, [db]Alex Gauna[/db], and [db]Russell Byrd[/db], there was no way they were going to entire bracket play on Friday after losing three consecutive games.
"Losing those first two games were disappointing because we didn't play that well and it was us losing them as much as those guys winning," said Gauna. "We wanted to come out and win this game so we had something positive to build on going into bracket play tomorrow."
Gauna and the rest of the Mustangs played with increased energy in the final game of super pool action and came away with the hard-fought 70-68 victory over the Dallas Mustangs, which feature a number of talented players including the No. 8 player in the 2011 class.
"After those first two games, we were really in there to win that last game," explained Mustangs leader Jon Horford. "Technically these games don't mean anything, but when you are a competitor pride is on the line in every game and this game meant a lot to me and all of the other guys on our team."
Dallas Mustangs' junior star LeBryan Nash, did everything in his power to make sure that his Mustangs entered bracket play with momentum. But it was 2010 standout Keith Appling who stole the show by scoring the final 13 points for the Mustangs to seal the victory.
Appling finished the game with 26 points in a game played on the auxiliary court at Rancho High School in front of a number of high profile college head coaches including his future head coach Tom Izzo[/db and UCLA coach [db]Ben Howland. Michigan State assistant coach Mark Montgomery was also at the game. Michigan coach John Beilein was there as well presumably to watch Devin Oliver and Matt Kamieniecki, who along with Juwan Howard are three of the top uncommitted players in Michigan for 2010.
"After losing to Team Philly yesterday, we wanted to come today and work harder and play harder," Appling said. "We didn't accomplish that in the first game today, but I think we came back well against the team from Dallas tonight."
Appling scored 23 points during his team's late-morning loss to Playaz Gold, whose star player Isaiah Epps dropped in 28 points against the Mustangs. Appling said the play of Epps didn't motivate him for the second game, it was the loss to the team that Epps plays for that had he and his teammates motivated.
"We didn't play well and anytime you lose a game like that you want to come back and play well the next game," explained Appling. "I think that we did that."
Of those three players, Howard has been the most productive over the course of the summer and he continued to be one of the best players for the Mustangs in both games on Thursday. Howard hit several big 3-pointers in the game and finished second behind Appling in scoring with 14 points.
After missing 13 free-throws in their 65-59 loss to Team Philly on Wednesday, a team they had beaten earlier this year while playing without Gauna, La Dontae Henton, and Jon Horford, the Mustangs were strong at the charity stripe against the Dallas Mustangs. As a team, the Mustangs missed just six free-throws of the 20 they attempted.
Horford failed to reach double figures in scoring, but he was impressive nonetheless. The Grand Ledge star scrapped for loose balls, fought for position in the post, and the baskets he did score were not cheap ones.
Izzo and Montgomery were probably impressed with the toughness and intangible qualities displayed by Horford during the game. Late in the game, Horford's ability as a leader was on display. He made sure that his teammates were where they were supposed to be in-bounds plays and he was not afraid to direct traffic or give instruction to teammates when they weren't doing what they were supposed to do.
Gauna scored just six points, but he was much more aggressive looking for his shot and when the ball was coming off the rim the future Spartan went up strong for rebounds and did so with both hands on the basketball.
"I think the mental focus was there for me in the game tonight," explained Gauna. "Maybe the mental focus wasn't there for me or I wasn't as focused as I should have been during the first two games. I think I showed more toughness one the court because I had to get a win for the team."