With many of Illinois' regulars struggling from the field, it was up to Kentucky transfer Alex Legion to carry the team on his back.
With a little over four minutes remaining in the game, it appeared that the newcomer would do just that.
In the end, Illinois couldn't overcome a Michigan State team that is almost impossible to beat on their home court, and their own confusion on the offensive side of the court late in the game. The No. 7 Spartans defeated Illinois, 63-57.
Legion, who had to sit out Illinois' first ten games of the season due to NCAA transfer rules, had gradually played himself as the team’s go-to-guy, notably scoring 12 points in the Fighting Illini's four-point win over Purdue in the team's conference opener.
Legion started out hot against the Spartans hitting six of his first nine shots, including three three-pointers to score 15 points. As Illinois gradually fell apart, Legion couldn't stop the slide.
Illinois had to go to the newcomer thanks to usually go-to players, Mike Davis, Trent Meacham, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale all either struggling, or disappearing on offense.
McCamey was the biggest culprit, going 0-9 from the field, including 0-7 from beyond the arc, though Trent Meacham was close behind, shooting just 1-7 from the field. Tisdale hit a higher percent of his shots but took just five of them, and scored just eight points.
While Illinois looked like the young, upstart team it is, making boneheaded errors in the final minutes, like Legion stepping on the baseline during a crucial possession with just over a minute to go; Michigan State looked like the Top-10 team that they are.
While they struggled from the field all game and trailed by seven at the half, there was a genuine feel in the arena that sooner or later, the Spartans would take the game over.
Far too often, Illinois would follow up a made basket by relaxing on defense. This allowed a Michigan State team to take advantage of the situation. The Spartans like to run, drive through an empty lane for an easy layup, and dunk.
The Spartans, who have dominated the offensive glass all season, continued their success by pulling down 16 offensive rebounds to the Illini's nine. They also hauled in 38 total rebounds compared to 26 for Illinois.
With the victory, Michigan State has made an undeniable claim on the Big Ten conference title, remaining the only team in the conference that is still undefeated.
While the loss is a blow for Illinois, they continue to show that this is not the same team that was such a disaster a year ago. Illinois appears they will be a contender for the entire season.
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