Illinois basketball upsets No. 18 Michigan State


Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (13) shoots a three pointer during the game against Michigan State University at the Breslin Student Events Center on Mar. 1, 2014.

By Johnathan Hettinger

EAST LANSING, Mich. — You can’t win if you can’t score.

After a worst-in-the-country offense in January led to an 8-game losing streak, the Illinois men’s basketball team knows that better than most. And they’re putting that knowledge to use, making sure other teams can’t put the ball through the basket.

For the fourth straight game, the Illini (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) held their opponent to fewer than 50 points on their way to defeating No. 18 Michigan State (22-7, 11-5) 53-46 for the program’s first win at the Breslin Center since 2006 — Dee Brown’s final year in Orange and Blue.

In the first meeting between the two teams this season, Illinois’ defense was unrecognizable. The Spartans made 55.8 percent of their shots, including 40 percent of their 3-pointers, while out-rebounding the Illini 38-25 in a 78-62 Spartans victory.

Saturday, however, it was Michigan State’s offense that was unrecognizable. Anchored by center Nnanna Egwu’s post defense, the Illini held the Spartans to a season-low 46 points on 39.1 percent shooting, including a 31.8 percent clip in the second half. The Spartans made just 33.3 percent of their 3-point attempts, going 2-for-8 in the second half alone.

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Michigan State also turned the ball over 16 times, while Illinois had a season-high 14 steals, and juniors Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice had five steals apiece. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said the Spartans’ 12-16 assist-to-turnover ratio was “a joke.”

Overall, Illinois has been playing not only its best defense of the season, but also its best defense in the last 66 years, as the Illini held their fourth straight opponent under 50 points for the first time since the 1947-48 season.

“It’s unbelievable for us to do that, but we’re that good. Defensively, we’ve shown that all year. That’s what we hang our hat on,” Egwu said. “In the losing streak, the margin for error wasn’t a lot. Take away this mistake here or this mistake there, and our record is a lot different right now.”

Illinois head coach John Groce made one thing clear: Illinois hasn’t peaked. Not on defense. Especially not on offense.

“As soon as you act like you’ve arrived, you’re going to fall pretty quickly,” Groce said.

Illinois made 47.7 percent of its shots and 44.4 percent of its 3-pointers, improving to 11-0 when outshooting its opponents. Abrams led the way with 12 points and four assists, and Malcolm Hill and Rice each added 10 points. Kendrick Nunn and Jon Ekey had eight and seven points, respectively.

Despite making seven percentage points higher than its season average from the field, Illinois turned the ball over 15 times and made just three of its seven free throw attempts.

Rice, who Groce admits carried the team for much of the season, said he’s noticed his teammates stepping up on both ends of the court and he sees even more room for growth.

“It feels good to have guys step up,” Rice said. “By the end of the season, we’re playing our best basketball. We’re finally starting to figure it out.

“When people step up and contribute, you get results like this.”

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