Illinois stymies Michigan State's comeback, strains Big Ten title hopes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing – The Big Ten title chase is leaving Michigan State behind, though not without a fight.

And given what’s ahead, Tom Izzo still has plenty of concerns after Illinois handed the Spartans their fourth loss in their last five games with a 79-74 defeat Saturday at the Breslin Center.

But the way this one ended, with Michigan State rallying from a 16-point deficit — led by a hot-shooting half from point guard Tyson Walker — to keep this one in doubt until the final minute, had to be encouraging just the same. 

Walker's three-point play with 47.7 seconds left cut the lead to 76-74 and had the Breslin Center crowd on its feet. But Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier buried a step-back three-pointer with the shot clock winding down at the end to end the Spartans' comeback hopes on the ensuing possession. 

And after Gabe Brown's corner three caromed off the rim, the Illini grabbed the long rebound and ran out the game clock to escape.

Michigan State’s Jaden Akins gets some coaching from Tom Izzo during the first half.

Michigan State, which began the week ranked 19th in the country, fell to 18-7 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten, 2 ½ games behind Purdue and Illinois in the conference race with five games to play. The 12th-ranked Illini improved to 19-7 overall and 12-4 in the league, a half-game ahead of Wisconsin.

The Spartans were coming off a dispiriting loss Tuesday at Penn State that saw the Spartans blow a 14-point second-half lead. And they were staring at a daunting finishing stretch to the Big Ten regular season, beginning with Saturday’s nationally-televised rematch against the Illini.

Illinois won the first matchup nearly a month ago, holding off a late rally by the Spartans to escape, 56-55, in Champaign. But Brad Underwood’s team played that game without preseason All-America center Kofi Cockburn (concussion) and guard Andre Curbelo (COVID protocols), both of whom were in the lineup Saturday. 

Cockburn finished with a game-high 27 points and nine rebounds for the Illini, who also were looking to rebound from a listless showing on the road in a loss Wednesday at Rutgers.

They led from start to finish Saturday, building an early double-digit margin as the Spartans were ice cold from the field, combining 9-for-29 shooting in the first half with seven turnovers.

Michigan State’s offense did find some life after the break, as Izzo continued with a small-ball lineup featuring both point guards, starter A.J. Hoggard and the recently-demoted Walker, along with Julius Marble at center.

Walker’s individual 6-0 run cut the lead to eight with 12:06 to play.

But Illinois went to Cockburn in the post for easy baskets on two of the next three possessions, the latter a three-point play that pushed the lead back to 57-44 with 10:22 left. Sandwiched in between was another catch-and-shoot three-pointer from senior guard Jacob Grandison, who shot 6-for-9 from deep and finished with a season-high 24.

But Walker's stellar play continued down the stretch, knocking down a series of jumpers and almost single-handedly bringing the Spartans all the way back. He finished with 26 points, 24 of them in the second half as he shot 9-for-10 from the field and 3-for-3 from behind the line.