Inability to close out game, maintain intensity costs Illini

Inability to close out game, maintain intensity costs Illini

By Jeremy Werner

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Illinois men’s basketball team had a heavyweight on the ropes but failed to deliver the knockout punch.

Illinois led No. 7 Michigan State by as many as nine points, but the Illini made only one field goal – a Mike Tisdale hook shot – in the final six minutes to give the Spartans the breather they needed before delivering their own counterpunch.

Michigan State closed on a 12-3 run to secure a 63-57 victory over the Illini on Saturday, the Spartans’ 28th-straight victory at the Breslin Center.

“We get to a point in the game where we don’t play as hard as we usually do,” Illinois senior Calvin Brock said. “We have to understand we have to play for the whole 40 minutes whether it’s home or away. If you play not as aggressive for two or three minutes or two or three possessions, that could change the game drastically.”

With a win, Illinois would have gained a share of the Big Ten Conference lead and likely recognition in the top 25 polls for the first time this season. But now, it’s back to the drawing board for Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

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    “We have to teach, but (the players) have to pick up their intensity,” Weber said. “There’s no doubt about it. We got to learn how to finish games against the top teams in the country if you want to be a top team in the country.”

    With starting guards Trent Meacham (1-of-7) and Demetri McCamey (0-of-9) combining for just one field goal in 16 attempts, the Illini offense struggled to find a rhythm offensively early on.

    But stronger performances from the bench paced the Illini. Sophomore Alex Legion scored a career-high 15 points, while Brock added 13. Legion scored eight straight points for Illinois as the Illini took a 48-42 lead in the second half.

    “Without them, we probably never would have been in the game,” McCamey said of Brock and Legion. “They gave us a tremendous boost and kept us in the game.”

    However, a more physical Michigan State squad prevailed down the stretch as it owned the paint, outrebounding the Illini 42-30. Senior Goran Suton led Michigan State with 12 points and six rebounds, while Marquise Gray (11 points and six rebounds) provided a spark off the Spartans bench.

    “They just took it to us,” Weber said. “They were much more physical than us inside. They’re good at it, and that was the difference in the game.”

    Michigan State (15-2, 5-0 Big Ten) was the more controlled offense down the stretch, committing only three turnovers in the second half after coughing the ball up 15 times in the first half. Illinois had 11 turnovers in the second half, including four in the final four minutes.

    “We snuck one out today,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We won one we probably didn’t really deserve.”

    The loss to Michigan State resembles the Illini’s Jan. 4 defeat to then-No. 23 Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Illinois led the Wolverines at halftime but failed to execute down the stretch in a 74-64 loss.

    Weber said the road losses show Illinois (15-3, 3-2) still has strides to make before it can consider itself an elite team in the conference.

    “We got to be coachable, keep our head above water because we have a huge week,” Weber said. “We have two games, Ohio State and Wisconsin, who we have not done well with in the last couple years. We got to find a way if we’re going to stay somewhat in this race to get some home wins.”