EAST LANSING, Mich. – In the team’s final home game of the season, No. 2 Michigan State clinched a share of their first Big Ten regular season title since 2012 and sent out its seniors with one last home victory.
Michigan State (27-3 overall, 15-2 Big Ten) powered ahead of the Illini (13-16 overall, 3-13 Big Ten) in the second half after a sloppy first, emerging victorious 81-61 Tuesday night. The Spartans were led by two players that may have also been playing their final games at the Breslin Center. Sophomore Miles Bridges scored a team-high 19 points, while freshman Jaren Jackson tallied five blocks, pushing his season total to 100.
The win was the 11th straight since the Spartans’ loss at home to Michigan last month. It also set the new school record for regular season wins at 27.
“Normally it’s hard at the end of the year, with a game left, to celebrate anything,” coach Tom Izzo said after the ceremonies came to a close. “But with the fact that it’s Senior Night and to be able to win a championship at home, at least tie for one, is a special moment that I thought should be shared with everybody.”
Izzo began the Senior Day festivities early, inserting seniors Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Tum Tum Nairn into the starting lineup in place of typical starters Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston. The three remained in the contest for the first 3:06, when Izzo replaced the three with the usual starters.
A 7-0 run from the Spartans extended their lead out to 19-11. But after trading buckets, Illinois responded with an 8-0 run of their own to tie it at 21.
“I thought we fought the first half,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I thought we were competitive, and I thought we took some, at least we threw some punches back at them.”
The Spartans regained the lead and held on to it for the rest of the half, going into the break with a 38-35 advantage. Illinois turned the Spartans’ seven turnovers before the break into eight points, helping them stay in the game.
“I still think the goal’s got to be putting two halves together,” Izzo said. “We have been a little inconsistent in that area, and so we’ve got a lot of things to get better at.”
Izzo must have shared some magic words at the half, because a different Spartan team took the floor in the second. The Spartans began the half with a 12-1 run, capped off by a three from Josh Langford (16 points) to extend the lead to 14.
“They’re good. They’ve got pros,” Underwood said. “They’re well-coached. They play hard. I didn’t expect anything more or less. Tom’s teams always show up and play.”
After even play back and forth, Kenny Goins (season-high 9 points) and Xavier Tillman slammed home back-to-back assists from Cassius Winston. Following those, a Goins three forced an Illinois timeout with 8:05 left, with the Spartan lead extended to 61-43.
That’s when the focus began to turn toward the Spartan tradition that Nairn, Schilling and Carter had been looking forward to. With under a minute left, nursing a 20-point lead, Schilling left the game to kiss the Spartan logo at center court to cap off his Breslin Center career, a move initiated by Shawn Respert in 1995 and continued by Mateen Cleaves in 2000.
“The five years here have just flashed by, and I was thinking about all the positive things that happened to me and got me emotional,” Schilling said. “Kissing that Spartan head means a lot. It is a tradition.”
Carter followed soon after, completing the home schedule of his second year in the program and first on the court after a knee injury kept him out all last season.
“I didn’t know if this day would come,” the Las Vegas native said. “I have had a lot of ups and downs in my six years of college. It was everything I thought it would be.”
As Carter acknowledged the crowd, Izzo was seen on the sidelines giving him a “hurry up” motion, trying to keep the program moving along.
“I thought he was going to kiss the floor and then all 15,000 fans. I thought he was going to walk into the stands,” Izzo joked. “I just felt like he sure deserved his time. He had six years. I mean, he’s going on Medicare next week.”
Finally, the fan favorite Nairn performed his curtain call in front of an adoring sellout crowd.
“I dreamed of kissing the Spartan head,” the native Bahamian said. “Having the opportunity to raise the banner, the trophy, and having my mom here, my teammates. It was an unbelievable experience. I am so humbled.”
Michigan State has only lost once on Senior Day since 2007, the loss being a 72-70 setback to Ohio State in 2012. That year was also the last for the program to win a regular season conference title, so Tuesday’s combination of accomplishments were a sight to behold.
“Big Ten titles, especially in this day and age with a big difference on the schedules and who you play, it’s kind of been crazy on how to win a Big Ten championship,” Izzo said after clinching the eighth regular season title in his storied MSU career. “But I just hope I look at it like we have other things to accomplish, and banners are what we like to do here, but it’s one of those years that when I’m not satisfied with that one. I’d like to win one outright.”
The Spartans will look to clinch that first outright conference title since 2009 on the road against Wisconsin on Sunday. Tipoff at the Kohl Center is set for 2:00 p.m. ET.