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A ‘culture’ win: Shorthanded Illini stay atop Big Ten, stifle No. 10 MSU

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Illinois won without Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — No Kofi. No Curbelo. But the Illini found a way.

No. 24 Illinois was without Kofi Cockburn (concussion protocol) and Andre Curbelo (COVID-19 health and safety protocols) but still found a way to move back atop the Big Ten standings with a thrilling 56-55 win over No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday night at State Farm Center.

While the shorthanded Illini played most of the night well ahead of the Spartans, Michigan State had a chance to tie the game near the final buzzer when Malik Hall was sent to the line for a pair of free throws.

After a Coleman Hawkins foul With just 0.2 seconds left on the clock, Hall needed to hit both shots to send the game to overtime. In part due to a raucous Orange Krush, Hall — a 69% free throw shooter — missed the first of the two shots and the Illini escaped with the win.

“This win tonight is a culture win,” said Illini guard Trent Frazier.

“I told the team, I wrote it on the board, Culture win,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood. “That’s what tonight was.”

Entering on a two-game losing streak, Illinois (14-5, 7-2 Big Ten) got off to a slow start offensively and didn’t get on the scoreboard for about three minutes, but Michigan State (15-4, 6-2 Big Ten) struggled, too (16 points combined through five minutes).

The Illini felt Cockburn’s absence defensively, mainly because Michigan State dominated the glass. The Spartans out-rebounded the Illini, 41-27.

After getting upset by Maryland last Friday, the Illini needed someone to provide some energy. Trent Frazier was that guy. Illinois had a 13-2 burst aided by 10 straight points from Frazier in the first half.

“Trent was huge,” Underwood said. “He got us going in the first half. He’s absolutely everything we’re about. He’s everything I want our program to be.”

Illinois got its first lead at 9-7 nearing the midway point of the first half, and the Illini then took over and closed out the period hot. Underwood’s squad entered the break up 34-20.

The Orange and Blue then got a nice boost off the bench from freshman guard Luke Goode. The Indiana native poured in a career-high 9 points, including three triples. He added four rebounds.

“He’s a tough sucker,” Underwood said. “He shoots the heck out of the ball. He was outstanding tonight.”

But it was the Illinois defense that was the storyline. Without its best inside shot-blocking presence and one of its best on-ball defenders, the Illini still suffocated the Spartans. While Sparty beat then-No. 8 Wisconsin last week by shooting 56% from the field, Illinois held MSU below 35% on Tuesday.

“I think we really bothered them tonight,” Frazier said.

Before Tuesday’s matchup, the Spartans had been held below 60 points just once this season. Illinois clamped them to a season-low 55.

Despite a scoring drought — spanning the game’s final 5:32 — and a late Spartan surge, Illinois held on to move a half-game ahead of both the Badgers and Spartans in the conference standings nearing the halfway point of the Big Ten schedule.

STAT STUFFERS

Trent Frazier (ILL): 16 points, 5 assists

Alfonso Plummer (ILL): 11 points, 4 assists

Luke Goode (ILL): 9 points, 3-of-4 3FG

Tyson Walker (MSU): 9 points, 6 assists

Marcus Bingham Jr. (MSU): 13 points, 6 rebounds

Gabe Brown (MSU): 10 points, 3 rebounds

SOUND SMART

  • Trent Frazier’s 16 points move him into the top-10 Illini scorers of all-time. Frazier also ranks in the top 10 in steals, minutes, and three-pointers in program history. After two more triples today, Frazier needs 11 more made threes to pass Dee Brown for No. 2 in program history (Cory Bradford’s 327 is the program high). Postgame, Brad Underwood said, “He is the epitome of our culture.”
  • The Illini have now played 19 games. Illinois has been without either Kofi Cockburn or Andre Curbelo in 16 of them. The pair of preseason All-Americans have only played together in three games this season (Cockburn’s return from suspension against Cincinnati, the game the following day against Kansas State – both of which had Curbelo play limited minutes due to lingering concussion symptoms — and Curbelo’s return against Purdue where Cockburn sat more than half the game in foul trouble).
  • The Illini have hosted three top-15 teams in Champaign this season. The first two were losses against then-No. 11 Arizona and then-No. 4 Purdue before beating No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday night.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

It’s Coaches vs. Cancer week, and look what Orange Crush did.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Guess who came to Champaign for a visit?

TWEET OF THE GAME

Goode.

HE SAID IT

“He’s kind of like their Draymond Green to me,. — Tom Izzo on Illini super senior Da’Monte Williams.

UP NEXT

The Illini stay in state, but travel to Evanston on Saturday to take on Northwestern.

Tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.