There was just too much talent on the court for Illinois to handle Monday night against Michigan State.
Likely NBA lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. tallied 30 and 21 points, respectively, to help the Spartans topple the Illini, 87-74.
A ‘dunk contest’ was also held between the two throughout the game.
“Michigan State is who they are because they do that every night,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “Am I happy about the loss? Never. I don’t accept losing, it’s not acceptable, but I will put my head on a pillow some point tonight and at least have a little comfort in the guys that wore those orange uniforms tonight.”
Kipper Nichols played the game of his life against the Spartans, pouring in 27 points off the bench, 22 of which came in the second half.
“I got open within the offense, my teammates found me, and I knocked down a few shots,” Nichols said. “Being an ‘everyday guy’, that’s what I’m trying to make a habit of doing.”
Trent Frazier reached double-figure scoring once again, notching 13 points.
Any shot Michigan State seemed to take proceeded to fall in as it shot 68.2 percent, the highest percentage by any Illinois opponent in Assembly Hall/State Farm Center history.
Twenty-five Spartan turnovers allowed the Illini to keep within striking distance for the majority of the game.
The Illini gave a valiant first-half effort for their fans, trailing only 39-32 at the break.
Illinois played its normal aggressive on-ball defense and first pass denial, which gave Michigan State ball handlers fits in the frame and led to the Spartans turning the ball over 15 times in the first half.
“We were going to try and get up in them,” Underwood said. “I felt like it was something we can do.”
The Spartans, however, shot a miraculous 78 percent from the field to hide the excessive amount of turnovers.
Illinois’ response was getting scoring from seven different players in the first half, including Michael Finke playing aggressive. He had nine points to pace the Illini.
Once the second half commenced a glaring problem started to arise for the Illini. If the Spartans are allowed shoot over 70 percent from the field without turning the ball over, then it will not take them long to start pulling away.
It was almost as if the Spartans were done playing with their food, getting whatever they wanted whenever they pleased.
At the 10:39 mark of the second of half, Michigan State led 62-44 and Bridges continued to control the game while also getting assistance from his Jackson, who scored 15 in the second half.
“Those are two lottery picks,” Underwood said. “We don’t have two lottery picks, they’re very very good.”
Together, the two took turns dunking all over the Illini, one of which involved the 6-foot-11 Jackson crossing over Mark Smith and throwing down a Statue of Liberty-like dunk in the paint.
What also didn’t help was Leron Black picking up his fourth foul early on in the second half. But as he went to the bench, he handed his metaphorical backpack off to Nichols, who then went on to being the only signs of life out of the Illini offense the rest of the game.
“We got 16, 17 guys that we have all the faith in, anybody gets an opportunity, they can come in, for the first minute to the last, and uplift it,” Nichols said.
Nichols had scored 14 second-half points at the 5:39 mark and almost seemed to bring his team back into the game, but the damage had already been done as the Spartans possessed a 71-57 lead at that point.
It seemed like the Illini fans were just waiting for one more emphatic play out of the Spartans to give them an excuse to get up from their seats and call this game, Jackson gave them that excuse.
With a rebound on the defensive end, Jackson took off for the one-man fastbreak, going coast-to-coast and flushing down another one-handed jam over Smith. Fans proceeded to shake their heads, get up, grab their coats, and head to the exits.
Give credit to Illinois, however, who gave purpose to the name ‘Fighting Illini’ on Monday. With a Nichols dunk in transition — Nichols is dunking the ball now — the Illini found themselves down only 10 points with a 1:31 remaining.
“I liked the team I coached tonight a lot,” Underwood said. “The name Fighting Illini, that was us tonight.”
The Spartans silenced these comeback hopes by knocking down all their shots from the charity stripe and capping off the road victory.
The Illini now fall to 10-11 and 0-8 in conference play.
“I’m fighting for our culture everyday,” Underwood said. “Sometimes the process means the other team has more points and you’re never happy with a loss... there are nights where you feel better on who you’ve become and the other team had more points.”