Champaign, Ill. — As Michigan State huddled one last time Tuesday night at the State Farm Center, there was never a doubt running through Xavier Tillman’s mind.
The Spartans trailed No. 22 Illinois by one with 17 seconds left in the game. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo drew up a play with a couple of different options, but if it broke down, Cassius Winston needed to get in the lane and get the ball up on the rim.
Xavier Tillman knew at that moment there’d be a chance the ball would end up in his hands, as it has so many times this season. And so many times, Tillman has missed layups at critical points in games, none bigger than a miss in the final seconds at Indiana on a lob pass from Winston.
So when Winston drew three defenders and scooped the ball up off the backboard, Tillman was there to grab it. And this time, there was never a doubt.
“I was excited for the opportunity because I knew what I was gonna do,” Tillman said. “I was gonna dunk it. That was my whole mentality, no matter what. I was gonna dunk the ball.”
Tillman stuffed home Winston’s miss with 6.6 seconds left on the clock. Ayo Dosunmu then turned the ball over at the other end and Michigan State ran off the court with a 70-69 victory as a stunned home crowd stood in disbelief.
“Xavier got so sick of missing layups that he decided to dunk one finally, and dunk he did,” Izzo said. “I’m so proud of Xavier because let's face it, we've missed a bunch of layups and he's missed them and it's cost us two or three games. As the players said to him in the locker room, he left no doubt on a layup this time and that was needed.”
Tillman finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds as Michigan State (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten) snapped a three-game skid. The Spartans did so thanks to a career-high 21 points from freshman Rocket Watts, 13 from Aaron Henry and 12 points from Winston.
The win helped Michigan State avoid what would have been a brutal loss after leading by 20 early in the second half only to trail in the final minutes.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the Spartans' victory over Illinois, ending a three-game skid. The Detroit News
“I'm proud of my team,” Izzo said. “Maybe that'll help propel us forward because we beat a good team in front of an electrifying crowd and I'm proud of my guys. I mean, we fought the whole time. We fought in the huddles, we fought on the bench, we fought and we just made it as that was what we were going to do. And considering our best player really had an average game, it was a hell of a win for us.”
Dosunmu scored 17 for Illinois (16-8, 8-5) and he turned the ball over on the Fighting Illini’s final possession. Andres Feliz added 15 points for the Illini and Kofi Cockburn added 11.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after the third straight loss for the Illini. “I have yet to figure out why we can’t play hard and we do that at times. Not to take anything away from Michigan State but the second half was a different story. Cassius does what Cassius does. He rejects the ball screen and Kofi had to help and that left Tillman wide open.”
Before the late heroics, Michigan State had it rolling from the opening tip, taking a quick 11-3 lead with three 3-pointers in the first four minutes then using an 8-0 run to extend the lead to 19-7 with 11:13 to play after Tillman swiped a pass and went the distance for a one-handed dunk.
After Illinois started to chip away at Michigan State’s lead and pull within single digits, the Spartans outscored the Illini 14-4, taking a 35-16 lead on a 3-pointer from Henry with 3:44 to play. Tillman added a jump hook late in the half as Michigan State took a 37-20 lead to the locker room.
Michigan State's Xavier Tillman, Rocket Watts and Cassius Winston talk about the last-second victory over Illinois. The Detroit News
“Definitely,” Winston said when asked if that was one of MSU’s best halves this year. “I think it was the way guys played. We played harder. You can see it. You can see it in our energy and see the way we move. We played harder as a team and it showed.”
Michigan State continued to control the game early in the second half, pushing its lead to 20 before Illinois put together a small run. However, the Spartans answered and took a 56-39 lead with 12:16 to play. From there, it was all Illinois as the Illini scored 10 straight to pull within seven and capped a 22-4 run to take their first lead at 61-60 with 5:29 to play.
Winston then made a pair of jumpers while Feliz hit a runner to give Michigan State a 64-63 lead with 3:42 left in the game.
After the teams traded free throws, Winston swiped the ball from Cockburn and Tillman converted at the other end to put Michigan State up, 68-65, with 1:24 to go. The Spartans then got a stop but gave up the offensive rebound and Feliz hit a pair of free throws with just less than a minute to play to cut the MSU lead to one.
Winston then turned the ball over and Cockburn hit a pair of free throws with 19.1 seconds left to give the Illini a one-point lead before Tillman’s winning put-back dunk.
“This is huge,” Winston said. “We’ve been tested all year and we’ve been through a lot of things. But to come in here against a tough team, in a tough environment, and come out with a win. Hopefully, that's something that can propel us for the rest of the season.”