So I sat in the second row seats that become available to me from time to time. Three visual imprints left on my brain:
- Tom Izzo with a vintage forward-leaning, scowling/screaming running fist pump as the team transitioned into offense after a lock-down defensive sequence in the first half.
- Draymond Green in his defensive crouch, guarding an Illinois player at the top of the key in the final minutes, barking like a junkyard dog.
- Kalin Lucas, having played 39 minutes, leaping as high as his legs would take him in the middle of a crowd of much taller players, trying to secure a rebound with one second to go in the game. (Needless to say, thank goodness it was only a cramp he went down with.)
Not coincidentally, those three images are all defense-related. This was MSU's best defensive game in a long time--the first time the team has held an opponent under a point per possession in the last nine games. They consistently forced tough shots, holding the Illini to 42.5% two-point shooting and 26.3% three-point shooting. And those two-point numbers were boosted by a number of fast break baskets off MSU turnovers. The only two Illinois players to score with any efficiency were Demetri McCamey (15 points on 12 FGA, boosted by two very deep threes early in the game) and Mike Davis (14 points on 10 FGA, most of them coming on midrange jumpers).
The trick, then, was squeezing out enough points on offense to pull away in the end, as Illinois wouldn't allow MSU to pull ahead by more than 4 points in the second half [until the last couple minutes]. For most of the night, that task fell to Kalin Lucas. And he completed it with aplomb. Despite shooting just 1-6 on 3-pointers, Lucas finished with 25 points on 19 FGA, converting a variety of midrange jumpers and floaters in the lane along the way. No other MSU player scored in double digits, as Lucas accounted for 9 of the team's 21 made field goals.
Lucas's scoring, along with uneven-but-generally-competent ball-handling (18.9 TO%) and solid offensive rebounding against a bigger team (38.7%) was enough to get MSU just over a point per possession. Late free throw makes helped, too.
MSU's performance in this game really reminded me of the 2006-07 team: tough halfcourt team defense plus a single scorer capable of putting the team on his back for an entire game at a time. It was Drew Neitzel then; it was Kalin Lucas tonight. When Lucas's jersey goes to the Breslin rafters in a few years, the focus of the highlights they show will be on his banner-filled sophomore and junior seasons. But what Lucas has done for a team on the brink of postseason extinction over the last month shouldn't be forgotten. He's averaged 21.9 points/game over the last 7 games.
The other thing about that 2006-07 team: Despite their distinct flaws, they were a joy to root for because you knew they were squeezing every ounce of ability out of the available roster. Tonight, that was true of the 2010-11 team, too.
- Draymond Green didn't start because of the stomach flu and was a non-factor on offense for 37 minutes. But he came up big at the end, making the two plays that gave MSU the lead it would not relinquish: hitting two free throws off a drive toward the lane and dishing the ball to Delvon Roe for a layup.
- Keith Appling had what was probably his best all-around game as a Spartan: great defense as usual, 9 points and 2 assists as a result of a more aggressive approach on offense, and 5 defensive rebounds.
- Durrell Summers wasn't great, but he was good. And that was a major relief coming off the shutout against Ohio State. He only shot 1-7 from the field, but got to the free throw line 6 times by playing more aggressively inside the 3-point line.
- Delvon Roe somehow stayed on the floor for 22 minutes and was quite effective for most of those minutes--scoring 8 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and posting 4 assists. I'm not sure the PP-TPW thing has ever applied to a player more than it applies to Roe right now.
- Mike Kebler is firmly inside Tom Izzo's circle of trust, playing 20+ minutes for the second consecutive game. He doesn't fill up the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists), but he can guard the opponent's best player (McCamey in this case) and he doesn't make mistakes (zero turnovers). Only 5 minutes for Austin Thornton. With Kebler knocking down open jumpers now, he just brings more to the table when the three main perimeter guys aren't in there.
- The Sherman/Nix/Payne trio didn't do much offensively, but they pulled down a combined 11 rebounds in 33 minutes. That's priority number one for those guys. More of an effort needs to be made to get Payne the ball on the block at least 2-3 times per game. He's becoming more comfortable with the ball in his hands, and you can see the frustration when he works to get position down low and doesn't get the ball.
Up next: Another battle of bubble teams--Tuesday night at Minnesota (9:00, BTN). Not a long turnaround, but hopefully enough time for Draymond's stomach to settle down and Delvon's knee to improve some more.