Spartans get monkey off back, grind out win at No. 22 Illinois

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Rocket Watts warms up at the Breslin Center. (Credit: Ian Gilmour / WDBM)

Trent Balley, Men's Basketball Beat Reporter

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the first time since a home win vs. Northwestern at the end of January, the Michigan State Spartans came out with flare, and were able to sustain such flare for longer than a few minutes. And dare say it, perhaps they even looked like the preseason AP No. 1 team in the country that many thought they would be.

And then, the second half happened. After leading by as many as 20 in the second half, the Spartans were barely able to grind out a 70-69 road win thanks to a Xavier Tillman dunk with six seconds to play.

“I’m proud of my team,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said following the nail-biter.

“We needed a win on the road and we needed a win against a quality team.”

The Spartans entered the State Farm Center in Champaign as losers of three in a row, and four of the last six. The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, came into the contest having lost two close ones in a row to No. 21 Iowa and No. 9 Maryland following a scorching seven-game winning streak. The Spartans killed two birds with one stone, handing the Illini their third straight loss while also snapping their own three-game skid.

The first half opened with some Spartan vengeance. Made 3-pointers from point guard Cassius Winston and swingman Aaron Henry helped the Spartans to an early 8-0 lead. Big man Tillman got in on the fun as well with an early 3-pointer.

The Spartans controlled the entirety of the first half rather comfortably, leading by as many as 19 points with just under four minutes until the intermission. The early lead allowed Winston to get some rest, as he sat for nearly seven minutes in the first half. At halftime, Michigan State held a 37-20 lead. Freshman guard Rocket Watts led the Green and White with 14 points at the half, while no Illini had more than three points.

“It was a really good team effort all-around,” Winston said. “Guys like Rocket (Watts), you can see their growth.”

Henry and Watts connected on back-to-back threes for the Spartans in the opening few minutes of the second half. But the first half carryover was short-lived. Illinois’ duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz got the ball rolling, finishing with a combined 32 points.

But Michigan State foul trouble was perhaps the biggest component for the Illinois comeback.

“I had some guys that were dead tired because of who I was playing and who I wasn’t playing because of foul trouble,” said Izzo.

With 5:29 to play, Dosunmu’s layup gave Illinois its first lead of the ballgame. The contest remained nip-and-tuck the rest of the way, with Feliz and Winston trading buckets. With just over a minute and a half remaining, a Tillman layup put the Spartans up by three.

After a pair of Feliz free throws and a turnover from Winston, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn headed to the free throw line with 20 seconds left and netted both. The Illini now held a 69-68 lead with one more Spartan possession left.

Then, Winston’s presence came through strongly, but not in the way you’d expect. He drove the lane, drawing several defenders to collapse on him, and tossed up a layup. The miss came off long, and an untouched Tillman came flying in for the two-handed putback jam with six seconds remaining.

Illinois inbounded the ball and pushed it up to Dosunmu, but the star slipped and lost the ball to Henry as time expired, and the Spartans stormed the court with a hearty exhale.

“It felt great, that’s all I’m going to say,” Tillman said with a smile, referring to his game-clinching jam. When asked about Winston drawing the defensive attention directly beforehand, Tillman had very high praise for his floor general.

“It’s expected,” Tillman said of Winston. “It’s the Big Ten Player of the Year.”

“You gotta put everybody on him.”

But Winston was quick to give the credit to his big man.

“He earned that,” Winston said. “How much time he puts in… to have a moment like that, To get a dunk for the game winner, that’s crazy. Hopefully it’s on SportsCenter.”

Illinois moves to 16-8 overall and Michigan State jumps to 17-8 and 9-5 in the Big Ten with a huge game against Maryland coming at home on Saturday.

In the end, it was Watts’ career-high 21 points and late-game heroics from Winston and Tillman that propelled the Spartans to victory.

“My game is very crafty right now,” Watts said. “I just gotta lock in and try to keep this thing rolling.”

Izzo’s Spartans got the monkey off their backs and are able to leave Champaign with some confidence ahead of Saturday’s matchup with No. 9 Maryland in East Lansing. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. at the Breslin Center; you can follow @WDBMSports on Twitter and listen to the live call on 89.9 FM in the greater Lansing area and online at Impact89fm.org/listenlive.

Trent Balley is a Michigan State men’s basketball beat reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @tbal91.