Champaign, Ill. — Michigan State is still not 100 percent, but that hasn’t stopped the No. 4 team in the country from remaining unbeaten in the Big Ten and establishing a record-setting start to the season.
Senior Adreian Payne did not play for the third straight game and that affected some of Michigan State’s offensive rhythm, however, it wasn’t enough to derail the effort of sophomores Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine.
Harris scored 23 points while Valentine recorded his second double-double of the season, scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, to lead Michigan State to a 78-62 victory over Illinois on Saturday at the State Farm Center.
While it was the first win for Michigan State (17-1, 6-0 Big Ten) at Illinois since 2009, it marked the best start in school history. Never before had the Spartans won 17 of their first 18.
“I have mixed emotions,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s really rewarding for the players and you always like players to leave something — hopefully it’s a Final Four or national championship — but with every team you hope they leave something that will make people think 20 years from now about this team.
“But unfortunately that does nothing for the future. It was a frustrating game on both ends, but we’re winning because we are checking really well, we’re rebounding really well … and we’re taking care of the ball.”
And while Izzo still doesn’t believe his team is where it needs to be offensively, he got just enough for the Spartans to win their 10th straight and hand Illinois (13-6, 2-4) its fourth consecutive loss after winning its first two conference games.
“Obviously we got beat by a really good basketball team,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They took advantage of what I thought were our share of mistakes on the defensive end. It wasn’t due to not being tough or effort or want-to tonight. I thought we were good there.
“But against a good team, when you make a mistake defensively, they’ll make you pay.”
Harris was the leader of that attack, hitting seven of his nine shots and having what Izzo called a “quiet” 23 points. But as good as Harris was and as consistent as senior guard Keith Appling continued to be — he had 15 points and four assists —Valentine was the spark in the first half.
His performance came after he shot 3-for-14 in the previous two games combined, including 0-for-5 in the victory at Northwestern on Wednesday. On Saturday, however, even though he started the game with a 3-pointer that didn’t touch the rim, Izzo was singing his praises.
“I thought Denzel probably had his best game,” he said. “Kudos to Denzel because I thought he was his smoothest, he was into the game; I thought he played pretty well.”
The early airball hardly fazed Valentine on this night as he hit his next two and also handed out four assists.
“I finally went out there and really felt comfortable,” Valentine said. “I felt confident and just played. I looked at the bench (after the airball) and they said I was fine and to keep shooting. I moved on and just made my shots.”
His play allowed Michigan State take a 35-25 lead at the break and the Spartans extended that margin to 43-30 early in the second half. But that’s when Illinois made the first of several runs at the Spartans, scoring four straight points, highlighted by a nice spin move on the break from freshman guard Kendrick Nunn.
But Valentine answered with a 3-pointer from the corner at the end of the shot clock to put Michigan State up by 12 and quiet the home crowd.
Illinois (13-6, 2-4), which lost for the fourth straight time, cut the Michigan State lead to single digits several times late in the second half, but each time the Spartans managed to regain momentum and push its lead back to double digits.
The final push came when the Illini cut the lead to 59-53 with six minutes to play. But Appling hit a 3-pointer less than a minute later and the Spartans put the game away after that.
Tracy Abrams scored 15 points to lead the Fighting Illini while Jon Ekey and Rayvonte Rice each scored 12.
Now Michigan State heads back home for two games next week — Tuesday against Indiana and Saturday in a showdown with Michigan — enjoying the fact it is off to the best start in school history.
“I felt like we finally had some fun and got a good win,” Valentine said. “We wanted to make history and that was a big thing tonight. We kept saying, ‘Let’s make history.’ It’s in the record books now.”