Matt Charboneau breaks down Michigan State's loss at Illinois on Tuesday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Champaign, Ill. — At one point in the first half on Tuesday night as another ball sailed out of bounds, Tom Izzo turned on his heels, looked up to the rafters at the State Farm Center and let out a big sigh.
He was busy watching his team virtually give a game away as No. 9 Michigan State turned the ball over 24 times — 17 in the first half — to lead to its third straight loss, this time falling 79-74 to an Illinois team that won just its fourth conference game of the season.
“It’s hard to win a game turning the ball over (24) times,” Izzo said. “I’m gonna tell you something, Illinois played damn good, but that was unexcusable the way we turned the ball over. That was, I give credit to Indiana and I give credit to Illinois, but we deserve blame. That’s No. 1. It wasn’t as chaotic as last year.
“I’ve never seen a player or two play that poorly. You have 17 turnovers in the first half you don’t give yourself a chance to be in the game.”
The 24 turnovers matched Michigan State’s most this season and led to the Spartans suddenly going from being alone in first place in the Big Ten to losers of three straight — the first time they’ve done that since late January 2017 — and finding themselves now a full game out of the top spot in the conference.
It was an alarming performance for a team that was coming off a loss on Saturday to an Indiana team that had dropped seven straight. The expectation was the Spartans (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) would be ready to go against the Fighting Illini.
MSU's Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman talk about the loss to Illinois on Tuesday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Instead, things went the wrong way quickly as Michigan State fell into a double-digit hole, stormed back to take the lead late in the game, only to falter late and not make winning plays in the final minutes.
“For sure because of the last two,” Xavier Tillman said when asked this loss was worse than the previous two. “We wanted this one bad. The Purdue game we didn’t really know what to expect with the crowd and the Indiana game we took for granted because of GameDay. But this game, we wanted it bad coming in. We practiced really well and it just didn’t come our way.”
It didn’t come anyone’s way for the bulk of the game.
Cassius Winston scored 21 for the Spartans, but his nine turnovers were critical in allowing Illinois to build a double-digit lead that grew to 14 early in the second half. Tillman added 16 points while Nick Ward and Kyle Ahrens had 11 points each.
“(It’s tough) because we lost two games and we were gonna come out differently,” Winston said. “On my part I did a poor job setting the tone for this team tonight. That blew us the game in a way.”
Illinois (8-15, 4-8) took advantage as Ayo Dosunmu scored 24 points, including two huge 3-pointers in the final minutes to seal the upset for the Fighting Illini. Giorgi Bezhanishvili added 16 points for Illinois while Trent Frazier scored 15 and Andres Feliz chipped in 10.
It was the first time the Illini have won back-to-back games since beating UNLV and East Tennessee State in mid-December.
“It is one of 20 and yet it is more than that to us,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I think it proves we can beat the country’s best. Look at their numbers, they’re right there. They’re the best in a lot of categories.”
However, that best hasn’t come in the last couple of weeks and it hasn’t come at Illinois as Michigan State has turned the ball over 49 times in the last two trips to Champaign.
On Tuesday, it didn’t take long to realize it was going to be another long night as the Spartans turned the ball over 10 times before the half was 10 minutes old and finished with 17 by the time the teams headed to the locker room. Winston was the culprit on many, getting credited for seven of his own turnovers while some poor decisions led to at least two more on his teammates.
The sloppy play allowed Illinois to get the home crowd into the game early as a triple from Dosunmu gave the Fighting Illini an 18-9 lead with 13:25 to play in the first half while later Dosunmu swiped two straight errant Michigan State passes and went the distance for uncontested layups to give the Illini a 31-21 advantage that became 41-32 by halftime.
The break did little to change things as the Illini got a 3-pointer from Frazier in the first minute and took its biggest lead to that point, 51-37, when Tevian Jones completed a three-point play with 16:17 to play. The lead eventually grew to 58-44 before Michigan State started to chip away.
Two quick buckets from Tillman got things going and later a triple in transition from Matt McQuaid pulled the Spartans within six points. Later, a Winston 3-pointer was followed by back-to-back triples from Goins that gave Michigan State a 64-63 lead, its first of the game.
MSU coach Tom Izzo talks about the loss to Illinois, the third straight for the Spartans, on Tuesday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
A put-back from Tillman extended the lead to three before Dosunmu hit two free throws to make it 66-65. A runner from Winston was answered by a three-point play from Andres Feliz to tie the game at 68 with 4:16 to play.
“That was mindset — ‘We got this. We got this,’” Tillman said. “Then we make a couple plays and let them right back in the game and let crowd back in.”
It really got back in it when Ahrens 3-pointer was blocked on the next possession followed by Dosunmu’s first triple to give the Illini a three-point lead. Michigan State’s 24th turnover was next followed by another Dosunmu 3-pointer.
“Even as bad as we played we felt like we had them where we wanted them,” Winston said, “but we but didn’t make wining plays at the end.”
Michigan State now returns home to face Minnesota on Saturday, hoping to avoid a fourth straight loss, one that might knock them out of the Big Ten race.
“We’re definitely down right now,” Winston said. “This is Michigan State. We’re not used to this. Got to watch film, got to get better. We’re gonna figure it out. We’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got a lot of veterans. Nothing we haven’t seen before.”