Spartans trounce Illini, 76-56 at home

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Cassius Winston/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Joe Dandron, Station Manager/Columnist

EAST LANSING — Cassius Winston sat out of the Spartans’ previous game against Western Michigan with a sore knee. Sometimes when you take a game off, there is rust.

For Winston, there wasn’t against Illinois (9-5, 1-2 Big Ten). The All-American guard looked refreshed and more aggressive, the edge that No. 14 Michigan State (11-3, 3-0 Big Ten) needed to avenge last February’s road loss to Illinois.

A 3-pointer dropped in front of thousands of MSU alumni that came out for the Izzone Alumni game to open up the evening’s scoring, then a transition layup with his left hand rolled in and two free throws followed with 17:17 left in the first half.

An acrobatic up-and-under layup from Winston pushed the lead further with 14:42 left in the first half. MSU was up 11-2 in the blink of an eye, then it was 13-6 with Winston’s whirling-dervish layup.

A second half run of eight straight made shots proved the difference for MSU. As Winston stepped back and gathered to hit another three at the top of arc with 8:11 to go in the game, it seemingly put a capstone on the night. No. 14 MSU defeated Illinois 76-56 at the Breslin Center.

“There’s really no substitute,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “The object’s puttin’ that round ball in the basket.”

“I thought there were times in that game that we played as good as we played all year,” said MSU head coach Tom Izzo after the win. “Our defense, rebounding, our running … I thought there were times when we got complacent.”

Casual Cassius

Winston proved to be the difference in the game, with four assists and six rebounds to go with his 21 points. A follow-up act to his 21-point, nine-assist performance in Champaigne last season, the senior had nine turnovers in that game.

Through 20 minutes of Thursday’s matchup, he only had one. The Spartans go as Winston goes, and that was reflected in the team’s smart and collected play, resulting in 20 assists on 26 made shots for the Spartans.

MSU improves to 7-1 when Winston scores 20 or more points.

Whether it was a miss or make, Winston showcased confidence and swagger that ignited the Breslin Center crowd. Two attributes matched just as well by Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu as he scored 13 points and snagged eight boards in the first half alone. 

“It’s fun,” said Winston after the game. “Thats the point of playing players like this, you get to see the best players, you get to compete against the best players. You get to play this game at the highest level. For him to go out there and do his thing, for me to come back and still do my thing, it’s good. It makes the game more fun.”

The sophomore and Wooden Award watch-list member had scored 11 of his team’s 17 points with 7:42 left in the first half. His big night was capitalized with an athletic and-1 late in the second half that showed how much talent the underclassman has.

Dosunmu and Winston went back and forth the entire first half, just as they had during Dosunmu’s first year at Illinois, as the then-freshman had 24 points in the two teams’ last regular season meeting.

Illinois sticks around, but falls short

Illini guard play was the key to staying in the game, but the young team made too many mental mistakes and 3-of-27 shooting from downtown proved to be too much.

“I liked our looks,” said Underwood. “I thought Cassius was tremendous early, obviously coming off a game he didn’t play … I think it’s a four, five, six point game you know and there’s a three minute segment where it goes 15-3 run and that’s the ball game … you can’t do that on the road.”

Illinois was without star freshman Kofi Cockburn for much of the first half, after he was whistled for two fouls, the latter on a Tillman dunk attempt. 

Illinois nearly got back into the game at various points in the first and second half, but those runs were killed off by a technical foul assessed to the Illinois bench when the Illini were down 28-20 after an Alan Griffin and-1 layup. 

Then, the Spartans busted open the second half with a 7-0 run that quickly became a 15-3 run in which MSU hit 5-of-5 shots, a run capitalized by 3-pointers from Xavier Tillman and Gabe Brown.

It proved the killer as Illinois even outrebounded MSU in the first half, but was unable to overcome a poor shooting performance and lack of offense outside Dosunmu and Griffin, who combined for 35 points.

Henry, Tillman come up big 

Alongside the strong play of Winston, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry came up big for MSU too.

Henry scored 10 points and despite struggling with the ball in his hands, only turned it over four times and had nine rebounds.

Tillman stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He and sophomore Marcus Bingham Jr. combined for nine blocks. Bingham Jr. was mobbed in the locker room postgame for his 12 rebound, nine block performance. 

“Everybody was showing love,” said Bingham Jr.

Henry showcased his improvement that has keyed MSU’s success this season. His first bucket dropped on a jumper in the corner, then a drop step layup with 6:09 in the first half after a slow start. 

As a sophomore, Henry’s combination of talent and athleticism is key to helping MSU continue its strong play as the Spartans approach the thick of Big Ten play.

“I think you know, were headed toward the right direction,” said Winston. “Each day, each game we’re getting better.”

What’s next for Michigan State

MSU’s next game is against No. 12 Michigan at home on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 1:30 p.m. The game can be found on CBS (WLNS Channel 6 in Greater Lansing) and right here on WDBM 88.9 FM.

Joe Dandron is a staff writer, football beat writer and columnist at Impact89FM. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephDandronMI and contact him at [email protected]