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Illinois 53, Michigan State 47: A Total Team Effort

The Illini played swarming defense and capitalized on turnovers in a huge upset over the Spartans.

Leon Halip

Well, look what we have here. The unranked Illinois Fighting Illini, the same Illini who earlier struggled in back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Purdue, go on the road and beat the Michigan St. Spartans 53-46. This marks the first win for the Illini at the Breslin Center since 2006. With just a few games remaining, the Illini now have a slightly-greater-than-zero shot to win out and acquire a tournament bid.

Michigan State started off on the wrong foot, turning the ball over six times in the first seven and a half minutes. This became a big story for the game, as Illinois ended up with 25 points off Spartan turnovers. The Illini had incredibly active hands today and it led to nearly one half of their total offensive output. Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice led the Illini defensive effort with five (!) steals apiece, including two huge takeaways in the last three minutes of the game.

Due to those early MSU turnovers, the Illini went on a 14-2 run and lead 21-9 about halfway through the first half. Encouragingly, most of the Illini buckets came off layups and short jumpers. All game, Illinois' half court offense consisted mostly of Tracy, Rayvonte, and Kendrick Nunn taking turns on pick and rolls, but it worked well enough for the first ten minutes.

After the early lead, Michigan State's defensive effort skyrocketed. Izzo must have lit a fire under his boys, and Michigan State went on a 19-7 run to finish the first half tied at 28. 15 of the 28 first half points for the Illini were scored off turnovers, which left me pretty discouraged for our second half chances. Typically it's hard to keep getting steals like that, but the Spartans kept them coming.

Of some note, Maverick Morgan really struggled during the big MSU run. He turned it over and committed fouls trying to catch easy passes in the post and let in a couple easy buckets on defense. This was a tough match-up against some powerful Spartan big men, but it was clear Maverick wasn't ready today.

For the third straight game (and the third straight win), the Illini forced the opponent to play their preferred style of game. Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in points per game (77.3), but Illinois' tough defense held the Spartans well-under a point per possession. The Spartans certainly had their share of nice moments, many of which came from their domination on the boards in the first half, but their offense was largely contained all day.

Illinois 56.8 22.9 22.2 15.9
Michigan State 45.7 23.9 36.4 23.9

Michigan State forwards Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson combined to shoot four-for-eleven from the field with six turnovers. PG Keith Appling, fresh off a wrist injury, shot 2-for-5 from the field, 1-for-5 from the free throw line, and had four turnovers himself. Though he was the only Spartan who played well today, future first round pick Gary Harris nearly made up for the rest of the team's struggles. Harris shot 50 percent from the three point line on ten attempts and was active defensively throughout the game, acquiring four steals.

Recently, only two or three players have stepped up each game to lead the Illini to victory. That was not the case against MSU-- the Illini truly came together as a team to win this one.

Tracy Abrams played pesky defense and had a huge step-back jump shot over Adreian Payne to seal the deal. Nnanna Egwu was quiet offensively and fouled out late, but once again reminded everyone just how important he is to this team defensively. Rayvonte Rice looked like his old self a couple of times with powerful drives to the hoop. Kendrick Nunn hit a couple big threes and dished out four assists. Jon Ekey was efficient in moderation, tallying seven points. Last but not least, Malcolm Hill was great today with ten points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field, including one hustle play that led to three full minutes of Dan Dakich adoration.

Illinois is officially 2-0 when I sign up to write the recaps. You're welcome, Illini nation. Now go party in the comments.