Illinois men’s basketball falls to No. 4 Michigan State

Illinois%27+head+coach+John+Groce+reacts+to+a+call+during+the+game+against+Michigan+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Saturday%2C+Jan.+18%2C+2014.+The+Illini+lost%2C+78-62.
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Illinois men’s basketball falls to No. 4 Michigan State

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a call during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The Illini lost, 78-62.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a call during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The Illini lost, 78-62.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a call during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The Illini lost, 78-62.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a call during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The Illini lost, 78-62.

By Johnathan Hettinger

Illinois head coach John Groce lost his temper, his sport coat and his fourth straight game Saturday night as the Illini fell to No. 4 Michigan State 78-62.

Illinois fell behind 35-25 at halftime after being outrebounded by the Spartans 24-10 in the opening half. The Spartans were able to extend the lead to 13 points with 15:41 remaining, but the Illini cut the deficit to 59-53 with 6:09 remaining. The crowd rose to its feet, but Spartans guard Keith Appling hit a 3-pointer to extend the Michigan State lead back up to nine.

On the other end of the court, Illinois’ Jon Ekey hit a 3-pointer, but it was waived as Kendrick Nunn set an illegal screen leading to the shot, launching Groce into a minutes-long, curse-ridden tirade about the officiating that eventually saw him throwing his coat and being held back by assistant coach Dustin Ford after being issued a technical foul with 1:38 remaining.

After the game, Groce only had positive words about the officials.

“I thought they were terrific,” Groce said.

Groce, however, wasn’t as happy with the play from his veterans, particularly center Nnanna Egwu and guard Joseph Bertrand.

Egwu was held scoreless for the second straight game, shooting 0-for-3, grabbing just two rebounds and committing four fouls in 22 minutes. Bertrand also committed four fouls to go along with four points and two turnovers.

“They’ve got to play better,” Groce said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys that they can play better. They have played better. They have to hang in there and figure it out.”

Junior Tracy Abrams, who finished with a team-high 15 points, wasn’t too worried about Egwu and Bertrand.

“Those guys understand that this is a grind,” Abrams said. “It’s a long season. We got 12 rounds left.”

With Egwu and Bertrand struggling, freshmen Maverick Morgan and Nunn each played a career high in minutes. Morgan had 16 minutes and scored four points while grabbing three rebounds. Nunn produced five points, three rebounds and two assists. Freshman Malcolm Hill added eight points and two rebounds on 3-for-5 shooting in 13 minutes, including nine in the first half.

Groce said he liked the way his team fought, but it lost to a better basketball team — one that shot 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from three, while outrebounding the Illini 38-25.

“It certainly wasn’t because of a lack of effort, or energy,” Groce said. “We made some mistakes, and they took advantage of them.

“All in all, we were right there.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.