Illini basketball comes up short against physical Spartans

Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn (25) looks to drive to the basket during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center, on Feb. 22, 2014. The Illini lost 60-53.

In a grind-it-out battle Sunday night, it was Michigan State’s defense, physicality and offensive execution that dealt the knockout blow to the Illinois men’s basketball team.

The Illini, behind Malcolm Hill’s team-high 17 points, played extremely physical against the Spartans but couldn’t come away with a win at State Farm Center, losing 60-53. 

“It was a very physical game,” head coach John Groce said. “Both teams played really hard, really aggressive, very physical. That was two good teams really going at it. Their quality of shot, their execution, their ball movement was better than ours for the majority of the game.”

Denzel Valentine finished with a game-high 20 points and led the Spartans (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) to 85 percent from the free throw line — he was 6-for-6. Those Michigan State free throws accumulated down the stretch and doomed Illinois (17-10, 7-7). 

As a result of the physicality throughout the game, the teams were called for 46 combined fouls.

“Every time we play them it’s going to be physical,” senior guard Rayvonte Rice said. “That’s just the type of game. They’re tough. We’re tough.”

Michigan State came out strong, dominating Illinois in the early going and scoring the first five points of the game.

Rice answered the Spartans’ initial run with five straight points of his own and Ahmad Starks added five more as the Illini went on a 12-0 run.

The Spartans answered with a 9-2 run of their own to tie the game at 14 before both teams settled down to keep the game close for the remainder of the first half.

The game was physical from the beginning — half of the total points scored in the first half were in the paint.

Illinois played aggressively on the defensive end throughout the night, holding the Spartans to 20 percent from three, but the Illini couldn’t get it done offensively. The team finished the game at 28.8 percent from the field.

“We couldn’t just drive where we wanted or get an open shot,” Hill said. “We actually had to work for our shots. They don’t buckle on defense.”

The two teams battled back and forth in the second half. The Spartans’ lead hovered at four points as the Illini answered almost every Michigan State bucket.

Finally the Spartans tried to pull away from the Illini, going on an 8-2 run to give them a 52-41 lead with 4:43 left.

“We’d cut it to four and then they’d score,” Groce said. “During that stretch they scored seven straight times. That was the difference in the game.”

Three straight turnovers by the Spartans late in the game allowed the Illini to momentarily claw their way back to the top. Illinois cut the lead to 54-51 with 1:20 left but couldn’t close out the game, missing several open shots down the stretch.

“We beat a good team. That was the hardest, most physical game that we’ve been involved in,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “That was two teams battling for their lives.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.