Last season, the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Michigan State Spartans split the season series, with each team winning on their opponent’s home court.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans were hoping that this season would be different. John Groce and the Illini had other plans.
In a game that was widely considered a “must win” for both teams, the Illini came out and seized the opportunity. Illinois went into the Breslin Center, took a half-time lead, and held on down the stretch to knock off the Spartans 59 – 54 on Saturday afternoon in front of an audience of 14,797 in East Lansing.
Early on in the first half, it looked like the Spartans were going to take this game over. Thanks to a Matt Costello lay-up at the 13:40 mark, the Spartans pushed their early lead to 8 points, at 10 – 2.
Illinois would start to chip away at the lead as the first half wore on, getting the game tied at 11-all with 10:36 to play on a jumper from Malcolm Hill. The Spartans would regain a three-point lead thanks to Lourawls Nairn, Jr making one of two free throws, then Illinois would take their first lead of the game.
Leron Black would make two jumpers of his own, then Hill would score four straight points for the Illini to give them a five point lead with less than 8 to play in the opening half. They would hold the lead for the rest of the first half, never letting the Spartans gain any consistent momentum.
Bryn Forbes would make a three-pointer in the dying seconds of the first half to bring the Spartans to within 1, and that’s how the first half would end.
Illinois took a slim 28 – 27 lead into the locker room after the first 20 minutes of play.
To open the second half, Malcolm Hill would score six straight points for the Illini, as they stretched their lead to five points. The Spartans would get the score back to even on two occasions in the opening 6 minutes of the half, but were unable to take a lead of their own.
As the second half wore on, Nnanna Egwu and Ahman Starks would make three pointers for the Illini, while Denzel Valentine would answer with two free throws of his own to keep the Spartans within striking distance. Valentine’s second three pointer came at the 6:56 mark, and brought Michigan State to within 2 points, at 49 – 47.
The story of the second half, and the entire game for that matter, was Illinois ability to hold onto the lead and Michigan State’s inability to make free throws. Down the stretch, Illinois would bend but never break. The Spartans would cut the lead to within 1 on several occasions, but could never take a lead of their own.
The Spartans’ best chance came with just 33 seconds left on the clock, when Illinois’ Jaylon Tate was assessed a technical foul for elbowing Travis Trice below the belt. There was some debate over social media afterwards as to whether or not Trice did a little bit of acting on the play, but the ref’s call was what it was.
Trice had missed his first free throw attempt before making the second before being fouled by Tate. Bryn Forbes went to the line to shoot three free throws due to the foul. The Spartans were within 2 points, and could have taken the lead. Forbes went 1-of-3 from the line, and that sealed the deal for the Illini.
Illinois would stretch their lead to 5 in the closing seconds, and the game was all said and done.
The Illinois Fighting Illini came away with a 59 – 54 win over the Michigan State Spartans in a must-win game for both teams.
The hometown Michigan State Spartans had plenty of chances to take this game over, but couldn’t take advantage. The game was lost at the free throw line, which has been the downfall of the Spartans all season long. On Saturday, they were a dismal 7-of-18 from the free throw line. If they had made their free throws, the Spartans would still be in the thick of things in the Big Ten race. If they keep up this level of play, they will play themselves out of contention for an NCAA Tournament berth.
For the Illinois Fighting Illini, the win over the Spartans has allowed the team to creep back into the discussion for the NCAA Tournament, at least for the time being. The injury-plagued Illini picked up a much-needed win over a strong team, in the Spartans, giving them some positive momentum heading into the stretch run of the year.
The Michigan State Spartans (15 – 8, 6 – 4) were led by junior guard Denzel Valentine, who scored a team-high 16 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 4 assists before fouling out. Branden Dawson added 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a losing effort. Travis Trice went just 2-of-10 from the floor for 6 points, while Bryn Forbes was just 2-of-7 for 8 points.
The Illinois Fighting Illini (16 – 8, 6 – 5) were led by Malcolm Hill, who led all scorers in the game with 19 points to go along with 6 rebounds and 2 assists. Nnanna Egwu added in 12 points, going 5-of-7 from the floor and 2-of-3 from behind the arc. Kendrick Nunn also added in 14 points of his own to help carry the under-manned Illini to victory.
Up next for the Illini is a date with the Michigan Wolverines in Champaign, IL, as Illinois puts their current three-game winning streak on the line.
This season has been a struggle for Michigan State to build on any positive momentum, and Saturday was another indication of that. The Spartans will look to bounce back this week when they take on the Northwestern Wildcats on Tuesday.