A gloomy season for Michigan State's basketball team found a major bright spot on Tuesday as the Spartans knocked off No. 5 Illinois, 81-72, at the Breslin Center.
With the Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) set to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, its unquestionably the biggest win of the season for an MSU team fighting to stay above .500 on the year. Head coach Tom Izzo's team led by as much as 19 while the Illini (16-6, 12-4 Big Ten) never touched the lead after the first five minutes.
Double-digit scoring outings from Aaron Henry (20 points), Joshua Langord (15 points) and Rocket Watts (13 points) paced Michigan State while Illinois got 30 points and 15 rebounds combined from Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Spotty shooting from Illinois aside (40 percent from the field), the Illini committed too many mistakes—many at the worst time—to give themselves a chance to get back into this one. It wasn't just the 11 turnovers as it was the extra possessions Illinois gave up.
Nothing highlighted those errors more than a foul called on Illinois' Trent Frazier early the second half.
With the Illini trailing by 11, Frazier fouled Watts on a three-point attempt just before the shot clock expired. That Watts only made one of his three free throws matters less than Frazier's actions. Instead of letting a 28.6 percent three-point shooter take a hurried shot to beat the clock, he fouled a player who shoots 80 percent from the line and gave MSU a chance to set their defense.
Those are not the type of mistakes you expect to see from a Final Four contender.
Illinois may still be headed for a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, but it now has glaring losses on its resume, including two more against unranked schools in Maryland and Missouri. The schedule doesn't get any easier for head coach Brad Underwood's team, either.
After hosting unranked Nebraska on Feb. 27, they play their final three games of the Big Ten season all on the road No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State.
Michigan State previously earned wins over No. 6 Duke and No. 15 Rutgers. Both now pale in comparison to the victory over Illinois, which should provide a strong boost of momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament—likely the only way into the NCAA Tournament the Spartans have left.