Just two games after that MSU vs. Maryland game which I referred to as one of the worst games of basketball from a viewing perspective ever, we were treated to an absolute gem of a game. This one featured multiple runs, ties, lead changes, big shots, and even bigger defensive stops. This game was overflowing with emotion and that led to a number of players having big performances.
The game started well for MSU as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead with baskets on their first two possessions. A collection of offensive rebounds by the Illini early on gave Spartan fans some flashbacks of recent games and it looked like this was going to be another contest where the Green & White would get dominated on the boards. But MSU locked down and actually took a two-rebound advantage into the locker rooms at halftime. More importantly, they took a three-point lead into the break, and that was after trailing by as many as eight points at a couple of instances in the first half.
One Spartan who made a nice contribution, relatively speaking, to MSU’s halftime lead was Jaxon Kohler, whose stat line at the break read four points, three rebounds, one assist, and one block. One thing that MSU did well as a team in this one, and particularly in the first half, was shooting free throws. Right after the loss to Minnesota that was arguably lost due to FTs, MSU hit 10-12 in the first half against Illinois, and they would finish the game going 25-34 (73.5%). They had four misses down the stretch, but they had mostly secured the win by the time those ones occurred.
The second half saw Illinois tie the game on a three just ten seconds in. From there, the game remained within a three-point margin one way or the other until the ten-minute mark. At that point, the visiting Illini went on a run to take a 72-64 point lead which they held until the 6:30 mark.
The remaining minutes of the game was one of the best stretches of basketball we have seen from our Spartans this season. From that eight-point deficit, Michigan State only surrendered eight more points, all the while scoring 24 of their own to capture a much-needed win. The run began with a pair of Tyson Walker FTs. Then AJ Hoggard hit a triple and then converted an &1 to tie the game. After briefly falling back down by two, Malik Hall had back-to-back &1s of his own, sandwiched around an Illinois pair of FTs, to put MSU up two. Right after that, we saw Walker get a steal and take it back for a layup to go up four. Then on the next Illini possession, Hoggard got the steal, and he would be fouled trying to convert his pick-six. His two FTs gave MSU a six-point advantage. After an Illinois miss, Hall got another trip to the line where he would split the pair. A pair of FTs by Terrence Shannon brought Illinois back to within five with exactly one minute remaining. From there, Hoggard went 3-4 from the line and Jaden Akins had a breakaway layup after MSU gathered a missed layup on the other end. Walker was fouled with eight seconds remaining, but he missed both attempts to prevent MSU from getting to 90. Shannon’s missed layup just before the final buzzer cemented the final score at 88-80.
3 Things I Liked:
- Tom Izzo. Much was made about Tom’s emotions in the postgame press conference following the Minnesota loss on Tuesday. Well, he obviously was still holding onto a lot of that anger coming into today’s matchup. And he coached with a high level of intensity and focus in this one, even above standard Izzo levels. It seemed like at every break in the action, Coach was getting in the ear of one of his players. The most animated of these incidents was probably right after Akins picked up a technical for mouthing something to the Illinois bench after hitting a corner three. Izzo was twenty feet out on the court shouting at Jaden on that one. But everyone from Sissoko and Cooper to Holloman and Walker were treated to their own time on the receiving end of Izzo’s “enthusiastic coaching points”. But you know what? I liked it. This was a must-win game, and Tom Izzo needed to make sure his team played with the tenacity and the discipline to get that victory.
- AJ Hoggard. In this must win game, the senior recorded a season high with 23 points. He also chipped in with five assists, two rebounds, and two steals, while only picking up one foul. AJ was solid from the FT line, going 12-13. Many of those trips were earned by him going aggressively to the basket. There were a few interior shots that he missed that I feel he normally would make, but his aggressive play did help put a number of opposing players into foul trouble. Even with all his scoring today, I will say his biggest play was his steal with 1:42 remaining. The two ensuing free throws he would make gave his team a six-point lead, and those turned out to be the winning points of the game.
- Malik Hall. After having one of his worst game of the season on Tuesday, a 2-4 FG and 1-6 FT performance, we had one of Hall’s best games today. His 22 points tied for his second-best output this year. On top of that, he also had a handful of rebounds. It was a drastic turnaround from the previous game. Today he converted 7-9 of his FGs and, symmetrically, 7-9 of his FTs, a couple of them being &1s. From taking the opening shot of the game, Hall was looking for his opportunities in this one. He was open and honest after the Minnesota game saying he needed to be better, and today he made some of the biggest shots of the game, especially when MSU needed them most. He showed some nice post moves earlier in the game, and then just displayed a will to score on contested low-post shots to put MSU up for good late.
- Discipline. I am giving a bonus like for this big win. In the first half, MSU picked up their sixth team foul before they had even played six minutes, putting Illinois in the bonus. From then until the end of the half, MSU only fouled two more times, one of them a total ticky-tack call on Akins with two to go. Their defense was tough and focused and it helped them go into the break without having given up many FTA to the Illini, who only had ten tries from the line in that half, two of which were after the Akins’ technical.
- The crowd giving it to Shannon. Yeah, we get a double-bonus of likes for this victory. I want to give a nod to the Izzone for an absolutely ruthless taunt of Terrence Shannon on one of his trips to the FT line. That “No means no” chant was everything. Funny and cold and absolutely correct all at once. Well done, Izzone!
3 Things I Disliked:
- Three-point shooting disparity. This has definitely been a pattern in recent games, but it was striking in this one. Illinois took 30 triples in this game; MSU only took eight. Fortunately for MSU, the percentages totally were in the Spartans’ favor, but the deep shot really needs to become more a part of their offensive game plan. At one point in the first half, the number of attempts was 14 to 2 in Illinois’ favor, and the half ended with a 14 to 6 difference. Eight minutes into the second half, MSU had not taken another shot from deep, and the count was now 22 to 6. Now, a lot of Illinois’ attempts from deep were because they were getting open, so the opportunities were certainly there. The defense needs to be better at running the opponent of the three-point line. And on the other end, they just need to look for that shot more. Giving up three-pointers while only scoring standard FGs ourselves is going to bite us.
- Missing inside shots from our inside players. Mady missed his only shot. Coen Carr missed one inside. Cooper tried a turnaround jumper and threw it off the side of the backboard. Not the worst performance we’ve seen from this group, but also not the best.
You know what guys? That’s it. I’m just leaving it at two dislikes. This was a big win. It’s between this and the Baylor victory for the best line on our tournament resume. Now let’s just see if we can build momentum off of it as we go on the road this week to visit Penn State and um.
VICTORY FOR MSU!