Michigan State's Tom Izzo met the media Tuesday night following an 81-61 victory over Illinois, securing the Spartans at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
East Lansing — A banner was raised to the rafters of the Breslin Center on Tuesday night, but it’s hardly the end game for Michigan State.
The second-ranked Spartans capped another emotional night on their home court, celebrating senior night with Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter by knocking off Illinois, 81-61, to clinch a share of their first Big Ten championship since 2012.
But that was just one thing checked off the list. Getting coach Tom Izzo his eighth conference championship was just the first step. As the players said, one by one after the game, the Big Ten tournament is next and the national championship after that.
“This is just one of the things on the list,” sophomore Cassius Winston said. “We crossed it off and that’s great. It’s hard to do, extremely hard to do and we’re proud of that. But there’s another step, another thing to do, another mission out there that we’ve got to accomplish.”
It’s clear, raising a banner with a game left in the regular season was important, and in most seasons it would have been celebrated even more. But with this team, one that has had a national championship on its radar from the day Miles Bridges decided to return for his sophomore season, it’s just a fun sidebar to an already fun night.
“I just hope I look at it like we have other things to accomplish,” Izzo said. “Banners are what we like to do here, but it’s one of those years that when I’m not satisfied with that one. I’d like to win one outright, and I’d like to really compete in that Big Ten tournament, but probably as much as anything, we need to get a little better. We need to be a little more consistent from one half to another.”
Michigan State (27-3, 15-2 Big Ten) will get one more chance to put together a complete game on Sunday when it heads to Wisconsin for a 1 p.m. tipoff. A victory in that game would give Michigan State its first outright Big Ten championship since 2009 and lock up the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament.
But on Tuesday, it was clinching the share of the title that came first. A slow start offensively was overcome by the second half as Michigan State pulled away and won its 11th straight.
Bridges, who likely played his last game at the Breslin Center, scored 19 to lead Michigan State while Joshua Langford had 16 points and Cassius Winston scored 12.
“I’m really proud of this team. I’m proud of what they’ve done,” Izzo said. “Normally it’s hard at the end of the year, with a game left to celebrate anything but with the fact that it’s senior night and to be able to win a championship at home, at least tie for one, is a special moment that I thought should be shared with everybody.”
Leron Black scored 20 for Illinois (13-16, 3-13) while Trent Frazier added 14 for the Fighting Illini.
“They’re good. They’ve got pros. They’re well-coached. They play hard,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of the Spartans. “I didn’t expect anything more or less. Tom’s teams always show up and play. I thought we fought the first half. I thought we were competitive. At least we threw some punches back at them.”
Michigan State used an early 7-0 run to open a 19-11 lead just seven minutes into the first half. However, Illinois proved it wasn’t going to be an easy out by responding with a 10-2 run to tie the game at 21 with 8:09 to play in the half after Mark Smith split a pair of free throws.
The Spartans pulled away again, pushing the lead back to seven on two separate occasions. But each time, the Illini clawed their way back, getting to within three at halftime after a layup from Greg Eboigbodin with 7.5 seconds to play. It cut Michigan State’s lead to 38-35 heading to halftime.
Illinois was 6-for-11 from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes while Michigan State turned the ball over seven times which led to eight points for the Illini.
The Spartans opened the second half on a 12-1 run to take control of the game and extended the advantage to 23 late in the half. By then, the celebration had started.
“It means everything,” Carter said. “We set out to accomplish certain goals at the beginning of the season, and this was the first of them. To have at least a share and to do that on senior night is everything we looked to accomplish when we were putting in work. Our team has gelled and gotten better each and every month. It is just a special feeling to raise that banner and be a part of a championship team.”
With the championship locked up, however, it was the three-time captain that reminded the home crowd that there was more out there to play for.
“Spartan Nation,” said Nairn, taking the microphone after the game. “I just want to tell you all, we’re not done.”