Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down Spartans' 87-74 victory over Illini. Matt Charboneau
Champaign, Ill. — Michigan State was in a fistfight Monday night.
At least, that’s the way Tom Izzo saw it and he wasn’t complaining one bit. Instead of lamenting a season-high 25 turnovers or the fact it came against a team that has yet to win a Big Ten game, the Michigan State coach came away impressed with his team’s 87-74 victory at the State Farm Center.
He was impressed with how Miles Bridges took the game over from the outset, scoring 31 points and missing just two shots. He was impressed with Jaren Jackson Jr. attacking the rim for a career-high 21 points while protecting it on the other end with six blocks.
And he was impressed with his point guards — Cassius Winston and Lowrawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. — who fought the pressure defense of the Fighting Illini all night. They combined for 12 turnovers but they also had 13 assists.
MSU coach on the 87-74 victory over Illinois where Miles Bridges scored 31 points but Spartans committed 25 turnovers. Matt Charboneau
“We’re a young team yet and they had to deal with that and that was not easy to deal with,” Izzo said. “Even with Cassius and Tum, we kinda left them hanging out there, so don’t be alarmed. I’m almost as excited about Cassius’ eight assists and Tum’s four than their 13 turnovers because of the way that beginning went.
“So for our young team to have to be in a fistfight and win when sometimes we question whether they are tough enough or they are this or they’re that, if we played little better down the stretch it could have been a 20-point win on the road. But I’ll take the 13 point-win and go home.”
It was the sort of win that can be a character builder.
No, it wasn’t a 25-point blowout like Illinois suffered over the weekend at Wisconsin. But for No. 6 Michigan State (18-3, 6-2 Big Ten), it was a chance to prove it could handle the pressure of the road after struggling in its first two away games in conference play.
Spartans Jaren Jackson Jr., Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston discuss their team's 87-74 victory over the Illini Monday. Matt Charboneau
“It’s huge for us,” Winston said. “We don’t have a lot of road wins under our belt so any road win we work hard for is definitely a positive for us.”
It helped that the Spartans shot better than they have all season, hitting 30 of 44 shots, good for 68.2 percent. It was the best any Illinois opponent has ever shot at the State Farm Center and was led by Bridges. The sophomore was 6-for-6 in the first half and finished 11-for-13, his two misses coming on 3-pointers.
“Miles Bridges was a man,” Izzo said, “in every way, shape and form.”
Bridges said he knew early things would go well as he took advantage of Illinois’ aggressive defense, burning the Illini with a handful of backdoor cuts and lob passes from Winston and Nairn.
“Once I get a few dunks I know I’m gonna be rolling the whole night,” Bridges said.
It helped in the first half as Illinois (10-11, 0-8) kept the game close with its pressure. After Michigan State took a quick 6-2 lead, the Spartans turned the ball over on four straight possessions. The Fighting Illini turned the first two turnovers into back-to-back layups but couldn’t capitalize from there as Bridges answered with a lob dunk and added a free throw to put the Spartans up, 9-6.
However, Illinois fought the entire half, forcing 15 turnovers and taking a 24-23 lead before a 7-0 surge from the Spartans. Michigan State eventually got a driving basket from Winston then a 3-pointer in the final minute to take a 39-32 lead headed to the locker room.
Michigan State broke it open early in the second half with a 7-0 run that gave the Spartans a 48-36 lead, one that grew to 18 when Jackson dunked on a drive with 5:39 to play to put Michigan State ahead, 75-57.
But Illinois kept chipping away as Michigan State kept giving it away, cutting the margin to 77-67 with 1:31 to play after another turnover and a dunk from Nichols followed by another giveaway that resulted in a layup and made it 77-69. Jackson answered with a pair of free throws as the Spartans closed it out at the line.
Illinois was buoyed by the fact it responded after losing by 25 at Wisconsin on Friday. Kipper Nichols scored a career-high 27 points to lead the Fighting Illini while Trent Frazier added 13 points and Leron Black scored 12.
“The name Fighting Illini, that was us tonight,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Compared to what I watched Friday night, it was different. We have to grow. We have to understand that’s the way the game’s played. Am I happy about the loss? Never. And I don’t accept losing. But I’ll put my head on a pillow at some point tonight and at least have a little comfort in the guys wearing orange and blue uniforms tonight.”
And Izzo was impressed with Illinois, but he was just as impressed with his team.
“Hats off to them but I got to say hats off to my guys, too,” Izzo said. “We took that licking early and we put in some things we thought would be effective against them.
“So, it was a total team win because a lot of different guys helped us tonight.”
In addition to his career-best 21 points, Jackson had 11 rebounds and six blocks, which leaves him one shy of tying Michigan State’s single-season mark of 72, set by Ken Johnson in 1984-85.
“I didn’t know that,” Jackson said. “One more to tie it. That’s great.”
… Michigan State outrebounded Illinois, 37-15. The Spartans entered the game No. 2 in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-11.6.
… The fans at the State Farm Center are as vocal as any in the Big Ten and during one lull, a fan behind the bench yelled at Izzo, “Coach K is still better than you,” referencing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Izzo, who is 1-11 against Krzyzewski, looked back, shrugged his shoulders and smiled as he turned back toward the court.