This story appeared in the Detroit edition of the November ESPN RISE Magazine.
The bench was probably the last place Keith Appling expected to find himself midway through the third quarter of last year's state championship game.
The junior guard at Pershing (Detroit, Mich,) had scored 24 first-half points, including all 13 of his team's points in the second quarter.
But Doughboys coach A.W. Canada would sit LeBron if King James didn't rotate and communicate on defense. So after back-to-back miscues, Appling was forced to grab some pine for a couple of minutes.
"They know if you don't play defense, you won't play," Canada says.
Appling spent his time on the bench pleading with the coaches to put him back in the game. Soon enough, they relented.
"He said, 'Coach, I'm ready. It won't happen again,'" says Canada, who calls Appling his best and most tenacious defender. "And it didn't happen again."
When Michigan's most dynamic scoring guard finally returned, he played like a man possessed. Showing the form that today makes him the No. 35 senior and No. 8 point guard in the ESPNU 100, Appling filled it up from everywhere. He hit driving layups, long-distance 3-pointers and mid-range pull-ups.
"I felt like I was in the zone, like no one could guard me," says Appling, who has committed to Michigan State.
Despite the missed time, he had 11 points in the third quarter and finished with a state-championship-game-record 49 in a 90-73 win over Kalamazoo Central as Pershing claimed the Class A crown.
"He definitely put us on his back," Canada says.
Appling's performance was one for the ages, and it embodied every aspect of what makes him such a great player -- from his love of big games to his ankle-breaking handle to his much-improved 3-point shooting.
Despite the high stakes, Appling's demeanor before the state final was the same as it was for a regular-season game in January. Having lost in the state title game the year before to Saginaw, some of Pershing's players may have been feeling the heat with a chance at redemption.
"He's not the type to feel pressure," says Canada, who's in his sixth year at the helm of the Doughboys. "Most guys think about the big moment, but he just does what he always does."
"I like the spotlight of a big game," Appling adds. "I like that a lot more is at stake."
The big stage is where Appling's win-at-all-costs mentality really shines through. It's a trait Canada noticed the first time he saw the young playmaker on the court.
"He was a fierce competitor," Canada says. "He just hates to lose. A lot of people say that, but from the very first minute he was here, he demonstrated it."
As a freshman at Pershing, Appling mostly played on JV before coming up to varsity toward the end of the season. He didn't get many minutes with the big club, but by the time his sophomore year rolled around, he was ready to go. Appling wasted no time in putting up big numbers, going for 39, 36 and 33 points in his first three varsity games that year.
Back then, Appling was a slasher without a reliable jump shot. He could get by anyone, but if defenders backed off, he couldn't make them pay.
As soon as the season ended, he hit the gym. Every other day, he'd put up 1,000 shots, determined to bring his jumper up to par. His increased range paid off last season, as he used an array of offensive moves to average 23 points per game to go along with six rebounds and six assists.
Appling's numbers could have been even better, but he shared the stage with Pershing's 6-foot-9 star big man, Derrick Nix. Now a freshman at Michigan State, Nix was a dominant post presence who was named the state's Mr. Basketball last season.
Together, Appling and Nix formed an unstoppable inside-outside combo.
In the state final, Kalamazoo Central made a concerted effort to stop Nix, double-teaming him constantly. The strategy worked in part, as Nix was held to four points, but it allowed Appling to go off. Showcasing the much-improved jumper, Appling drilled five 3-pointers en route to his 49 points.
"They were focused on Derrick, and that stretched the defense out a lot for me," Appling says.
This past offseason, Appling spent most of his time becoming a better floor general. When he heads to East Lansing next year, he's going to play both guard positions, so he used the summer to work on his passing and decision-making. Canada thinks that will add a whole new dimension to Appling's game, even if his distributing gets overlooked because of his highlight-reel drives to the basket.
"He has all the attributes of a true point guard, but he's also been blessed with an unbelievable ability to score," the coach says.
Appling plans on showing off all facets of his game this season. With Nix gone, more of the burden -- as a scorer and a leader -- is on the senior's shoulders.
"Keith's a natural introvert, but he's becoming more vocal," Canada says. "He's always been a team guy on the court, but now he's really communicating with his teammates. Derrick, who was the life of the party, helped Keith open up."
Add it all up -- well-rounded offensive game, improved decision-making and newfound leadership -- and it should be a monster year for Appling.
As long as he keeps playing defense.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.