Again, Illini fall after fast start



By Jason Grodsky

In what has been a season full of disappointment and struggles for Illinois on the court, the team looked as if it would finally get the signature win it has been searching for all season.

Illinois opened up a 10-point first-half lead, and senior forward Shaun Pruitt scored a team-high 13 points and moved two points away from becoming the 41st player in Illinois history to score 1,000-plus points in his career, but Illinois (12-18, 4-13 Big Ten) couldn’t hold off No. 17 Michigan State, falling 59-51 at home.

Illinois kept pace with the Spartans in the first half, but Michigan State (24-6, 12-5) fought back to tie the game at halftime and started the second half on a 7-0 run, while forcing Illinois to commit eight second-half turnovers.


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Michigan state fights back

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“We played with good energy in the first half but we couldn’t sustain it,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “The first five minutes of the second half was just a killer. Like most of this season, when you don’t shoot the ball well and don’t make your free throws it takes a toll on you.”

Illinois edged Michigan State on the glass 29-28, but Michigan State shot 41.7 percent from three-point range and held Illinois to a lowly 13.3 percent from beyond the arc to make the difference in the game.

After Michigan State opened a 38-32 lead at the beginning of the second half, Weber inserted senior forward Brian Randle into the game to try and spark the Illini to a comeback. Randle had been sidelined the last two games with a shoulder injury that was thought could keep him out for the remainder of the season.

Even with Randle in the game, the Illini couldn’t muster enough to overcome the Spartans, who were coming off an impressive 103-74 shellacking of No. 18 Indiana on Sunday.

The closest Illinois got to Michigan State the rest of the way was 46-43, but a three pointer by the Spartans’ senior guard Drew Neitzel seemed to demoralize the Illini. Neitzel finished with a game-high 17 points.

“Their defense was the same after the first 10 minutes,” Pruitt said. “We turned the ball over too much and we were just sloppy … our offense was a little out of sync in general in the second half.”

The start of Thursday night’s game was a complete reversal from the two teams’ game earlier this season.

After scoring just 14 points a piece in the first 15 minutes of the game in their last meeting on Jan. 30, Illinois and Michigan State got off to a blistering pace. The Illini took advantage of six early points from Pruitt and a hot stroke from the field to take a 19-11 lead.

Michigan State responded with a 10-2 run to tie the game 27-27 and took its first lead at 31-29 with just over two minutes left in the first half, but a late basket by junior guard Calvin Brock knotted the game 31-31 heading into halftime.

The loss extended the Illini’s losing streak against ranked teams to eight games and snapped a four-game home winning streak over the Spartans.

“We have a quick turnaround, and we just have to stay supportive of each other and keep our spirits up,” Randle said.

Game notes

  • Senior forward Brian Randle’s right shoulder dislocation was originally expected to sideline him for the remainder of the season. Thursday night against Michigan State, Randle proved how ahead of schedule he was.
  • The Peoria native, who sustained the injury Feb. 20 against Wisconsin, entered the game early in the second half and played five minutes, was taken out and later returned to record a dunk, a well-fought rebound and a block. He also connected on a layup and finished with seven points.
  • “I just came in the gym. I’m always ready to play,” Randle said. “(The right shoulder has) started to feel better and it’s getting better every day. I just wanted to come off the bench and give them a spark.”
  • Texas junior college player Dominique Keller was in attendance, as was 2009 recruit D.J. Richardson.
  • Rodney Alexander, after getting over a midweek cold, scored two of his four points on a trade-off with Trent Meacham that led to a thunderous dunk four minutes in.