Michigan State gets huge win in upset over No. 5 Illinois
East Lansing – At some point on Tuesday night, Aaron Henry simply shook his head.
There was senior Joshua Langford, soaring through the air, grabbing rebound after rebound until he had a career-high 16.
There was sophomore Rocket Watts, looking poised and under control running the offense.
There were freshmen A.J. Hoggard and Mady Sissoko not shrinking from the fight, standing up to a bigger, stronger opponent with the season on the line.
And there was Joey Hauser, struggling through a difficult season hitting two huge 3-pointers in the second half.
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From the shots falling, to the in-your-face defense, Michigan State put it all together again, knocking off No. 5 Illinois, 81-72, at the Breslin Center, and finally giving some life to what had been a dwindling shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd straight season. It was the second win in a row for the Spartans, who face a brutally tough road over the final two weeks, but it was also the second game in a row that everything finally looked like it fit.
“I'm kind of just frustrated that we haven't been playing with this all year, honestly,” Henry said, pausing then shaking his head. “And it's tough to look at it like that, but damn, we played good tonight.”
And now, the Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) are actually building some confidence, no longer looking around for the other team to start taking control of the game. Instead, it’s Michigan State that looks like the aggressor.
“Michigan State punched us in the mouth,” Illinois guard Trent Frazier said.
There was plenty of that on this night. Players had to be separated on more than one occasion and Sissoko was ejected in the second half after a flagrant foul on Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu.
But along the way, the Spartans have rediscovered not only the toughness that has marked their program, but the ability to feed off one another.
“We had two words tonight, one from coach and one from us,” Langford said. “The first word from coach was ‘connected.’ The second word from us was ‘attitude.’ We wanted to build off that Indiana win and I think we did an unbelievable job of trying to be locked in and be connected and have a solid attitude.
“We are really coming into ourselves as a team. We’re becoming more connected. That’s what it is.”
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That connection led to another big night for Henry, who scored 20 to lead Michigan State. He got plenty of help from Langford, who was all over the court, scoring 13 points and grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. Watts had 15 points and five assists while Hauser added 13 points, including a late 3-pointer to help push back a late Illinois rally.
“I’m very proud of this team,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve been through hell and high water.
“I’m happy to get a win, a big win against a team that had won seven in a row. … Long way to go, we all know that.”
Illinois (16-6, 12-4) entered the game having won seven in a row and still had an outside chance at catching Michigan for the Big Ten title. Instead, the Fighting Illini never matched the Spartans’ fight, couldn’t find an offensive rhythm and lost for the third straight time to Michigan State.
Frazier scored 22 to lead Illinois while Dosunmu scored 17, though he was limited to 6-for-18 shooting. Big man Kofi Cockburn added 13 points as he was hounded all night by Michigan State’s rotating center group of Julius Marble, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier and Sissoko. And Andre Curbelo chipped in 12 for the Fighting Illini.
“One of those nights,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We were due for one. I'm not that disappointed, I'm not. I'm actually in a good place.
“They mucked the game up and give them a lot of credit. There’s a reason they foul as much as any team in the country. They mucked the game up and made it ugly. Their kids played really hard and I thought Langford was unbelievable in the first half and impacted the game.
“We had a chance as bad as we played … after the flagrant foul to cut it to six on the road against a team we cant lose sight of was a top-five team earlier in the year, we just couldn’t get a stop.”
Michigan State’s smaller lineup of Henry, Watts, Langford and Gabe Brown didn’t take long to get rolling in the first half as Illinois scored the first five points but the Spartans went on a 10-0 run to seize control of the game. The ball started moving and the shots started falling before back-to-back 3-pointers from Langford and Brown gave Michigan State a 20-14 lead with 9:30 left in the half.
While the offense was in rhythm, the defense was doing its best to clamp down the Fighting Illini. Illinois shot just 24% in the first half as Michigan State extended its lead to 28-18 on a Watts jumper with seven minutes left in the half.
Frazier hit a couple of 3-pointers to get Illinois within six, but Hauser hit a three and then split two free throws to close the scoring, giving the Spartans a 36-26 lead at halftime.
The Spartans kept the heat on to open the second half, scoring seven in a row at one point to take a 47-31 lead with just less than 15 minutes to play, forcing an Illinois timeout with 14:45 to play in the game.
Michigan State continued to push the pace from there, extending the lead to 54-36 on a put-back from Marble with 11:42 to play, proving the Spartans with their biggest lead of the game at that point. The lead grew to 19 less than a minute later after a Marble jumper, but the Illini started chipping away, scoring the next six points to pull within 13 of the Spartans, a margin that stood with 7:51 to play as Michigan State held a 62-49 lead.
Illinois got within 10 at 66-56 with 5:19 to play and got within nine after Dosunmu got to the line four times in one possession but made only one free throw with four minutes left. But Hauser’s deep 3-pointer with just less than three minutes to play effectively put the game away as Michigan State salted it away at the free-throw line.
Michigan State now gets one day off before hosting No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday as the tough stretch of games and push for the postseason continues.
“It’s another opportunity,” Henry said. “We won a game here and we're on to the next, one day at a time. … It’s always good to come along. It’s never too late. But man, tonight it was Spartan basketball.”