No. 10 Spartans’ second-half comeback falls short, lose to No. 24 Illinois 56-55

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MSU forward Malik Hall attempts a free throw during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Trent Balley, Sports Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The No. 10 Michigan State Spartans looked to start another winning streak as they hit the road to face the No. 24 Illinois Fighting Illini on Tuesday. The Illini, on the other hand, were looking to avoid a third-straight loss. The undermanned and hungrier home team came away with the 56-55 victory, as Illinois took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

“We’ve been consistently inconsistent,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “Every time I think we’re taking a step forward, a couple of guys take two steps back.”

Before the game started, it looked like the Illini would be behind the 8-ball. 2021 All-Big Ten center Kofi Cockburn was already sidelined with a concussion, and it was announced less than an hour before tipoff that Andre Curbelo would also be out due to health and safety protocols. That meant the Illini would be without their points and rebounds leader in Cockburn (21.1 points, 11.8 rebounds per game) and their leading assist man in Curbelo (4.3 assists per game).

None of it mattered.

The Illini came to play, snatching an early 15-9 lead following back-to-back Trent Frazier 3-pointers out of the under-16 media timeout. The woes for the Spartans continued, as Gabe Brown was whistled for offensive basket interference on what looked to be a Malik Hall around-and-down make. Advantage: Illinois.

“The key of the game was to have energy,” Brown said, “and we didn’t bring that today.”

MSU guard Max Christie (5) and forward Gabe Brown (44) high-five during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 13, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Brown broke the ice by converting an and-one layup with 10:43 until halftime, making it 17-12 Illinois. After a defensive stop, Brown slammed home a fastbreak jam to cut the Illini lead back to three.

Then, the Illini got things going again with a quick 7-0 scoring run, which featured an alley-oop slam from Frazier to Omar Payne, to give the Illini a double-digit lead that they would build all the way up to 34-20 at halftime. Leading the way was Frazier with 10 points, while Bingham and Brown had five points each for the Spartans.

“We had no rhythm,” said Izzo. “But if you turn the ball over nine times in the first half, how do you get into any rhythm?”

The Spartans started the second half with a 7-2 run before Payne stopped the comeback with an and-one finish through Brown to make it another double-digit Illini lead. Later, Luke Goode connected on his third 3-pointer of the game to give the Illini a 16-point lead with 15:01 to play.

The Spartans tightened up on the defensive side of the floor and were able to cut the lead to nine after a Brown corner three, but Plummer answered with back-to-back threes of his own. 

A steal-and-slam from Bingham kick-started an 8-2 Spartan run to cut the lead to six. Their defense stood strong, not allowing an Illinois field goal for over four minutes. A pair of Hall free throws cut the Illinois lead to four with 1:53 remaining. The Spartans got yet another stop, and with one minute to play, Hall connected on a floater as the shot clock expired to make it 56-54 Illinois. Illinois coach Brad Underwood called a timeout to draw something up and try to halt the Spartans’ momentum.

MSU forward Malik Hall attempts a free throw during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Out of the timeout, Christie blocked a Plummer layup attempt, giving the ball back to MSU as Izzo called a timeout of his own with 26.7 seconds to play. The Spartans looked to Tyson Walker for the game-tying mid-range shot, but it fell short. Goode corralled the rebound and was intentionally fouled with 9.9 seconds remaining.

The Spartans were eventually able to put Frazier on the line by intentionally fouling him with 6.4 seconds to play. He missed the front end of the one-and-one, giving the Spartans one final chance. Walker found Hall for a layup attempt which he missed, but got fouled with 0.2 seconds to play. 

And so, Hall stepped to the free throw line with a chance to force overtime. With the home crowd screaming as loud as it possibly could, Hall’s first free throw popped out. He made the second, but it wouldn’t matter, as Illinois would escape with the 56-55 victory.

Frazier finished with 16 points and five assists to lead the Illini, while Bingham finished with 13 points, six rebounds and four blocks. The Spartans outscored the Illini 35-22 in the second half, and forced the Illini to go just 1-for-9 from the field in the final minutes, but the slow start was ultimately too much for the Spartans to overcome.

“Throughout the game, we fought back and fought hard,” Bingham said. “We’ve just got to learn from it.”

The Spartans will be back in action on Saturday as they welcome in the Michigan Wolverines for their first – and possibly only – matchup of the season. You can follow @WDBMSports on Twitter for all of your game coverage.

You can follow Trent Balley on Twitter at @TrentBalley.