Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Illinois 73, Michigan State 70: Fighting Illini keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive

                                                        Photo Credit: Damon Warren

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.— In need of a signature game to stake their case for the NCAA Tournament, the Illinois Fighting Illini (18-12, 8-9 Big Ten) delivered with a 73-70 win over the Michigan State Spartans (18-12, 10-7 Big Ten) on senior night, but sweated the final seconds out.

As the final minute approached, Miles Bridges’ three-point make pulled MSU to 71-70 with 17.4 left.

Malcolm Hill missed the back end of the double bonus as Michigan State's Kenny Goins grabbed the rebound and called timeout at halfcourt. Down 72-70 with 14.7 left, Bridges dribbled to his right, but drove to the rim and lost control of the ball as it clanked off the rim.

Kipper Nichols left the door open for MSU as he split a pair of free throws with 3.4 left. Izzo and Groce called timeouts, respectively.

Lourawls Nairn took the ball off the inbounds pass and weaved through defenders and found a clean look with a three-pointer from the wing, but failed to hit the iron as the Illini escaped with a win and their at-large tournament hopes for now.

Hill took a wicked shot to the left shoulder from Goins' screen and admitted he would not have been 100 percent, if the game went into overtime.

"I'm glad (Nairn) missed because if I went into overtime with a bad shoulder off the screen, it would have been bad," Hill said.

Hill, who was one of six seniors honored prior to the game, ended on a high note with a game-high 22 points, on 6-of-16 from the field, to go along with four assists.

Fellow classmate Maverick Morgan gave MSU defenders in the low post problems as he finished to 14 points, on 7-of-13 shooting and seven rebounds.

"The match-ups favored us one-on-one and we were able to capitalize on certain areas and I happened to be one of them tonight," Morgan said.

Bridges led Michigan State with a double-double (21 points and 10 rebounds) in 31 minutes.

Michigan State's achilles heel proved to be its 15 turnovers, which turned into 18 Illinois points on the other end.

"18 points is a lot and were able to win the turnover the battle to help offset our lack of rebounding," Illinois coach John Groce said. "We took really good care of the ball and thought it was influential to our win."

Fresh off an 84-74 win over then-No. 16 Wisconsin on Feb. 26, Spartans coach Tom Izzo believes they got complacent with the ball on offense.

"We almost came back despite the turnovers and you can't do that to good teams on the road. I'm not real happy. The players did not bring what they needed and we will fix it at Maryland." Izzo said.

The Spartans felt the pressure of the deafening Illini crowd early, but in a nonchalant matter started with a 6-2 lead behind three-point makes from Joshua Langford and Miles Bridges.

Illinois responded with an 8-2 run, highlighted by a post touch from Morgan and a spin move on Kenny Goins for the layup as it scored seven of its first 10 points, off MSU’s four turnovers.

The turnover woes continued for MSU as Langford would be pick-pocketed at the top of the key by Nichols and took it the other way with ease for a layup. Despite the early turnovers, the Spartans kept the ship afloat with a 7-0 run to go up 17-12, before a Hill triple ended the flurry at the 10:19 mark.

Hill would score eight of the next 10 Illini points as they regained the lead at 22-21, before Bridges’ jumper on the opposite end silenced the crowd. Illinois’ long-range shooting gave MSU problems as it responded with an 11-1 run and went 3-of-3 from the field.

Illinois’ lead grew to 10 points, but a Bridges’ layup and an Alvin Ellis III layup at the buzzer off a Leron Black turnover closed MSU’s deficit to 39-33.

The momentum carried over into the second half as MSU went on a 12-2 run, highlighted by a conventional three-point play by Bridges to go ahead 45-43.

The Spartans’ lead would not last long as confusion on defensive assignments led to the Illini’s 15-2 run over a 5:07 stretch to go up 58-47. In need of a boost on offense,  Ellis III scored 11 of MSU’s next 13 points, to pull within four.

"(Alvin) made the open shots and then there were some times where we took a couple of shots knowing there was no way in hell he should take— seniors should know that," Izzo said in a stern manner."

While the Illini took a step closer to making a last-second push towards the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans took a quantum leap backwards and will need a win on the road against the Maryland Terrapins on March 4 to stay on the tournament bubble, while the Illini look to finish Big Ten play with six wins in their last seven games as they travel to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

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