CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After blowing what was once a 20 point lead, forcing the final minutes to be played as a back and forth one point affair, Michigan State men’s basketball fought for a 70-69 win against Illinois on Tuesday night.
With 6.6 seconds remaining and the Spartans trailing 69-68, senior guard Cassius Winston lobbed up a shot that soared across the basket and, almost miraculously, landed in the hands of junior forward Xavier Tillman. Tillman slammed it through the rim, recording his second dunk of the night and securing the Spartan victory.
What a crazy finish in Champaign.
“I hadn’t got a dunk in a while, at least a ferocious dunk where I can let all my anger out on the rim," Tillman said. "Those were two that I was happy I got those opportunities."
Michigan State held their largest first half lead on the road all season against Illinois at State Farm Center, but things shifted when senior guard Cassius Winston saw foul trouble. Recording his fourth foul with 10:30 remaining in the second, the Detroit native sat as sophomore guard Foster Loyer checked in.
Without Winston, Loyer and the Spartans could not find an answer to Illinois defensive big men, and suddenly the Illini found a flux of energy that they had been missing. Illinois scored 10 points while Loyer was on the floor and brought the game within five, the closest it had been since the start.
“Cassius got in foul trouble and we kind of fell apart," Head Coach Tom Izzo said. "That happens, it happens because of turnovers and then turnovers for touchdowns. Thank god for Rocket (Watts) and Xavier (Tillman). I thought they played really well.”
The Spartans recorded 16 turnovers and trailed Illinois in rebounds 38-33. Winston said that these factors that hurt them in the second half, but their start proved something that Illinois couldn't contend with.
“We had a couple things that let them get back in the game, some turnovers, letting them get some rebounds and things like that," Winston said. "But our first half was amazing. We played hard, guys were moving, guys were active, sharing the ball down the stretch. We made some crucial mistakes but it’s a really good team and to come into their place against some of their momentum and figure out a way to win, that’s good.”
Winston played 25 minutes, his lowest time since the last meeting between MSU and Illinois, in part due to his fouls but also due to his team trying to take some of the offensive pressure off of his back.
For weeks, the Spartans have stressed the need to put less pressure on Winston. This need was answered as all eyes turned to freshman guard Rocket Watts, who had an electric scoring night.
Watts shot 9-for-14, scoring a career- and game-high 21 points. He helped MSU hold out an edge against the Illini as the team shot 38.9% from three while the Illini trailed at 27.8%.
"Cassius (Winston) will come out and do his thing every night and some nights he going to be in foul trouble," Watts said. "We got to pick it up at the wings and everybody's got to come around, gather it and pick it up and I feel like we did that tonight."
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Spartans as they now look ahead to host the sole leader of the Big Ten, Maryland on Saturday.
“To be able to have a team come back on us by about 20 and us not be devastated by it, instead say, 'you know what we got to finish his game out,' and that’s what we did," Tillman said. "I’m proud of my guys.”