No. 19 Spartans fall to No. 12 Illinois 79-74 despite late-game magic from Walker


MSU guard Tyson Walker during the Spartans’ 79-67 win over Nebraska on Jan. 5, 2021/ Photo Credit: MSU Athletic Communications

Trent Balley, Sports Editor

EAST LANSING – The No. 19 Michigan State Spartans welcomed in No. 12 Illinois Saturday in an attempt to wash away the pain from last Tuesday’s road loss to unranked Penn State. In a tale of two halves, the Spartans fell to the Fighting Illini 79-74 despite a chaotically brilliant performance from Tyson Walker in the second half.

The first half was not kind to the Spartans, and the recipe was equally ugly. The offense struggled to score, failing to even reach double digits until the 6:57 mark. Overall, the Spartans were able to shoot 31 percent (9-for-29) in the half, but that was thanks in large part to a strong finish. At one point, they missed 12 shots out of 13 in a dismal stretch. Naturally, the Fighting Illini were able to build an early double-digit lead.

One thing the Spartans did reasonably well in the first half was contain Kofi Cockburn. The 2021 All-Big Ten center was held to eight points on five shots, and didn’t make his first bucket until the 13:07 mark. 

The trade-off for “containing” Cockburn was arguably more damaging, though, as Jacob Grandison knocked down five killer 3-pointers in the half to lead all scorers with 15 points at the intermission. One of his threes came as the shot clock expired with under a minute to play in the half. The Fighting Illini found themselves with a 34-22 halftime lead.

For the Spartans, A.J. Hoggard led the team at halftime with six points, while Julius Marble added four points and six rebounds.

MSU point guard A.J. Hoggard calls out a play during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

The Spartans opened the second half with a bit more consistency, getting within nine points at the 17:04 mark thanks to a 3-pointer from Marcus Bingham Jr. However, it seemed like every time the Spartans threw a punch, the Fighting Illini threw a bigger one right back via Cockburn. He really began to have his way in the second half.

Cockburn’s eventual dominance and Grandison’s continued production kept the Fighting Illini comfortably ahead as time dwindled down. Joey Hauser knocked down a three after the under-eight timeout to pull the Spartans within 10 points for one last chance at a run… and it came in bizarre fashion. 

A 3-pointer from Walker and a close bucket from Marble cut the Illinois lead to eight with 4:25 to play, which kickstarted the chaos.

The Spartans got the ensuing stop they needed, and Walker nailed another 3-pointer to make it 67-62 Illinois. Marble was fouled on the play away from the ball, so the basket counted and Marble went to the line for a 1-and-1 chance, but he missed the first.

On the other end, Cockburn finally appeared to be human and was whistled for a three-second violation. The Spartans took advantage and went to none other than Tyson Walker for the elbow jumper.

After a Cockburn layup, Walker tried yet another 3-pointer, and connected. The home Breslin Center crowd was erupting as it watched its backup point guard take the game over.

With the two teams continuing to trade blows, the Fighting Illini held onto a three-point lead with just over a minute to play. Hoggard then committed a killer turnover which resulted in a Trent Frazier fastbreak layup. Now trailing by five, Walker took the ball right into the teeth of the defense and put in a finger-roll layup… and got fouled. He hit the free throw to make it a two-point game with 47.7 seconds to play.

MSU point guard Tyson Walker attempts a contested jumper against Eric Curry during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Then, seniority prevailed as the fifth-year senior in Frazier knocked down a 3-pointer from the right wing to seal the 79-74 Illinois win.

Walker’s unconscious second half featured 24 points (9-for-10, 3-for-3 from deep), giving him 26 for the game. Cockburn’s second half was spectacular as well, as he poured in 19 points (7-for-10) en route to a game-high 27 points.

Elsewhere for MSU, Marble finished with eight points and 10 rebounds, Hauser with 11 points (3-for-5 from deep) and Hoggard with 15 points. For Illinois, Grandison finished with 24 points (6-for-10 from deep), five rebounds and five assists. Frazier finished with 12 points – all of them coming in the second half – and five assists.

The Spartans will look to get off the two-game losing streak Tuesday as they travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes.

You can follow Trent Balley on Twitter at @TrentBalley.