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Spartans Upset No. 5 Illini, 81-72, Reigniting NCAA Tournament Hopes

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NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Aaron Henry led the Spartans to the victory over Illinois tonight.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State men’s basketball team needed this one. They needed a marquee win. And they got it against No. 5 Illinois in East Lansing tonight.

Aaron Henry led the way with 20 points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and two steals and Joshua Langford poured in 15 points while grabbing 16 (SIXTEEN!) rebounds to lead the Spartans to a victory over the Fighting Illini.

Even though the Spartans led nearly the entire second half by double digits, it didn’t feel like it was actually over until the final couple minutes, after MSU withstood everything Illinois threw at them.

Right out of the gate, Michigan State’s tradition of slow starts on the offensive end continued. It took over three minutes for MSU to register its first basket of the night on a drive to the hoop by Rocket Watts, who finished with 13 points and five assists, with only one turnover in 31 minutes of play. Luckily for the Spartans, Illinois had only scored five points of their own during that stretch as the Spartans played lock-down defense.

At the first TV timeout, it was 5-2, Fighting Illini, and MSU had as many turnovers as points, shooting 1-for-5 from the field.

It was at that point that MSU turned it up, forcing back-to-back turnovers for the Illini with baskets by Joshua Langford, Watts, and Henry to give MSU a quick 8-5 lead.

The Spartans were looking to stretch the lead, but a Joey Hauser turnover appeared to have squandered the momentum. However, he made up for it the next possession — after an MSU steal — and the Spartans had Illinois doubled up, 10-5. That’s where it was at the under-12 timeout, with Illinois heading to the free-throw line. The Spartans had forced five turnovers and had held Illinois scoreless for that four-minute stretch.

After the Illini made their free throws, Henry hit a floater and Illinois answered with a three-pointer. A Hauser drive and dish to Marcus Bingham Jr. gave MSU a four-point lead. On the next possession, Kofi Cockburn’s first basket of the game came on a defensive rebound and slam and the MSU lead was down to two, 14-12.

Michigan State answered, though, and the extra pass from Henry to Langford in the corner resulted in a three-pointer for MSU and a 17-12 lead. A phantom call on Julius Marble – his second foul – sent Ayo Dosunmu to the line and Marble to the bench.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Feb 23, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State Spartans forward Gabe Brown (44) dunks the ball during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Gabe Brown answered the Illini’s two free throws with a three-pointer from the corner on an assist by Watts and the lead was up to six, 20-14.

The next time down the court, an offensive rebound gave MSU another opportunity and Henry made ‘em pay with the drive down the lane. Strong defense down low and a Langford basket resulted in an Illinois timeout with 8:03 left in the half and the Spartans up, 24-16. At this point, Langford had seven points and seven rebounds and Henry had six points and three assists.

The teams traded offensive fouls out of the timeout and Cockburn put his second basket on the board, with the rebound and the slam, again.

On the other end, Bingham put it through the basket and got fouled. Although he missed the ensuing free throw, good defense and a Rocket Watts basket stretched the lead to ten for MSU, 28-18.

In a comical sequence, a missed Illinois dunk followed by an offensive rebound and a travel gave the ball back to MSU, but the Spartans couldn’t stretch their lead. An Illinois three-pointer brought them back to within seven points, but Henry answered quickly, backing down in the paint to put MSU back up nine. The teams traded missed baskets for a bit and after Illinois made two more free throws with 3:36 left to pull within seven, AJ Hoggard made his only basket of the night to push the lead back to nine.

The next time down the court, the Illini’s Trent Frazier hit a three as the shot clock was about to expire, pulling Illinois back to within six. 32-26. After a Hauser turnover on the next possession, Illinois launched another three as the shot clock ran out, but — as seemed to be the case all night long — the Illini got the offensive rebound. Illinois finished the night with 16 offensive rebounds and 24 defensive rebounds, outrebounding the Spartans, 40-35.

After a missed layup, Illinois fouled Langford – but he missed the front end of the one-and-one. A held ball on the next defensive possession led to a three-pointer by Hauser and the lead was back up to nine for MSU with under a minute to go in the half. Illinois got multiple offensive rebounds and missed multiple put backs. It got a little physical and Hauser emerged with the rebound and was fouled. Shooting one-and-one, Hauser missed the front end, but Illinois bailed him out with a lane violation. Hauser made them pay by burying the front end … but then he missed the second free throw.

MSU’s lead was back up to ten, but MSU’s first half free throw woes – 1-for-4 including missing the front end of a one-and-one – meant MSU had left four points on the court but still led Illinois, 36-26, at the half.

Illinois started the second half with the ball and their first possession ended with one of two free throws made. On the next Michigan State possession, Langford missed, but Henry kept it alive for an MSU offensive rebound and a foul on Illinois. Julius Marble missed a bunny, but got his own rebound and the lead was up to 11, 38-27, one minute into the second half.

On the next possession, Marble was called for his third foul and in came freshman Mady Sissoko.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Feb 23, 2021: East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Joshua Langford (1) brings the ball up court during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

An Illinois drive and a basket cut the lead to nine, but Langford answered with an isolation and a drive down the baseline. A sweet fade away jumper made it 40-29 for the Spartans.

After a Cockburn lay-in, Henry missed a shot, but the Spartans got back and forced a stop. On the next possession, Langford collected his 12th rebound and scored his 10th and 11th points on the put back. The Spartans were up 42-31, three minutes into the second half.

Free throws were the Spartans’ enemy again on the next possession, as a desperation heave as the shot clock was nearing zero for Watts was bailed out by a foul on Illinois’ Frazier. Watts missed the first and third but made the middle shot, putting MSU up 43-31 with 15:54.

Another Illinois foul on the Spartans’ next possession sent Aaron Henry to the free-throw line, shooting two. He made them both and MSU’s lead ballooned to 14 with 15:26 to go in the game. Continued strong MSU defense led to a run out by Watts, a fast break basket, and a timeout by the Illini, with the Spartans up 47-31 with 14:45 left in the game.

The Spartans could feel the win was in their sights, but would they be able to hold off the Illini down the stretch?

On the next possession, the ball was forced loose by the Spartans and, on the held ball, the Spartans gained possession. Watts isolated his defender at the top of the key, drove the lane, and drew the foul. That led to a Henry basket and an 18-point lead with 14 minutes left in the game.

After an Illinois basket, MSU committed a turnover and the Illini cut the lead to 14. The Spartans didn’t let it rattle them, though, as Henry made a strong move to the basket. His shot rimmed out, but Bingham Jr. was there for the put-back and the foul. He made the free throw and the lead was back up to 17, 52-35.

On the next trip down the court, Illinois got the ball down low to Cockburn who went up strong and was fouled. He missed both free throws (he was 0-4 at the line at this point and finished 3-11 on the night) and the Spartans grabbed the rebound. After a Langford shot rimmed out, Illinois got it back down low to Cockburn again, who was fouled — but was he? — going up for the dunk. Sent back to the free-throw line, Cockburn made the first and missed the second.

Marble came back in at the 12:05 mark and immediately contributed with his second basket of the night, pushing MSU’s lead back up to 18 at the under-12 media timeout. It was 54-36 with 11:30 left in the game.

Out of the timeout, Cockburn made the front end of the one-and-one, but missed the back end and Langford collected his 14th rebound of the night.

A Henry assist to Marble for the baseline jumper made the score 56-37. On the next possession, Langford jumped the pass and got the steal, but couldn’t convert the fast break opportunity. An Illinois field goal followed by a Marble miss and another Illinois basket and the lead was down to 15, 56-41, midway through the second half. Was the momentum shifting? Could the Spartans keep it up for the final ten minutes and put the Illini away?

After Frazier cut the lead to 13 at the free throw line, Illinois dialed up their full-court press. After the Spartans made it across half-court, Langford took it to the rim and made a tough shot. An Illinois foul on the next full-court press sent Watts to the line with 8:49 in the game. He made the front end of the one-and-one. MSU’s PA announcer Jeremy Sampson trademark announcement — “he gets the bonus” – followed and Watts made it to push the Spartans lead back out to 60-45.

After Thomas Kithier picked up his fourth foul playing defense on Cockburn – but inexplicably allowing him to make the basket – he added the free throw and the lead was back down to 13.

During the next few minutes, the Spartans traded baskets with the Illini but lost two big guys as both Marble and Kithier fouled out. The lead was 14 points with seven minutes left, but when Illinois cut it to 12 they put the full-court press back on.

Watts tried to answer, but missed a jumper. Illinois went back down low and after a couple misses and offensive rebounds, it was a scrap and the held ball gave possession to the Illini. A Spartan defensive breakdown led to an easy basket on the out-of-bounds throw in and the lead was down to ten with six minutes left in the game.

Henry took control, once again, and went down the lane for the floater, stretching MSU’s lead back to 12, 66-54, with 5:30 to go. Illinois answered quickly and had another opportunity after an empty MSU possession, but the Illini couldn’t cut the lead to single digits and the rebound went out-of-bounds off an Illinois player.

After Sissoko was ejected on a flagrant-2 foul, Ayo Dosunmu missed both technical free throws and Spartans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. MSU tightened up the defense but a bail out call from the refs – MSU’s 15th foul of the half – with 4:02 left in the game put Dosunmu back on the line, where he missed his third free throw in a row. After making the last free throw, MSU’s lead was down to nine and the Illini’s full-court press was back on.

On the next possession, MSU couldn’t get it inside so Watts was forced to take it alone and he delivered, putting MSU up 68-57 with 3:30 to go. Frazier answered with a drive down the lane and Illinois called a 30-second time out with the Spartans once again clinging to a nine-point lead.

After MSU beat the press the next time down the court, Hauser confidently took a huge three from the top of the key – off a pass from Henry – and buried it. The lead was back up to 12 with under three minutes to go. However, after multiple offensive rebounds by Illinois, the Illini cut the lead to ten, once again.

On the ensuing possession, MSU worked the clock, Henry isolated his defender and made him pay, driving down the lane for the basket. But Illinois wouldn’t go quietly. After a quick response by Illinois, the lead was 10, 73-63, with 1:36 left, and Illinois started fouling.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State
Feb 23, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Joshua Langford (1) talks to forward Gabe Brown (44) during the game against the llinois Fighting Illini.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Hauser continued to pour in clutch points down the stretch, calmly knocking down both ends of a one-and-one — twice — to maintain MSU’s lead.

On the next possession, Langford grabbed his 16th rebound on an Illini miss and threw it up court to a streaking Rocket Watts, who, instead of waiting to get fouled, took it to the hoop and drew contact. Watts drained both free throws, the lead was up to 14 again, 79-65, with 55 seconds left, and the upset seemed complete.

An exclamation dunk by Gabe Brown on an assist by Watts and the celebration was on. The Spartans dribbled out the clock and it ended as a #Victory4MSU, 81-72, over the fifth-ranked Illini.

The Spartans walked out of Breslin this evening with their NCAA tournament hopes back in view, having landed their biggest win of the season. It’s taken a bit longer than usual, but has Tom Izzo finally put the pieces together in the correct way to allow this Spartan team to be the version of themselves they need to be to make a splash in March? We’re about to find out.