Michigan State men’s basketball looked like a team playing for their life Tuesday night, and in a scrappy 81-72 victory over No. 5 Illinois (16-6, 12-4 Big Ten), they proved to still be hanging onto a lifeline.
In a performance defined by an electric start that they never came down from, MSU (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) claimed a stunning upset over the second-place team in the Big Ten. The Spartans picked up right where they left off against Indiana, claiming a season-high in field goal percentage in Big Ten matchups as they shot 54.2% in the game.
"Happy to get a win," Izzo said. "Big win because it was against I think a very quality team who has been on a seven game win streak."
As MSU held steadily onto their lead in the second half, guard Joshua Langford found a fade-away look that left him grinning as he jogged back to defense. It was a shot that confirmed a career night, one the 6-foot-5 guard had been brewing for two years.
Langford found all the right places to be on the court against the Illini, tying his career-high 10 rebounds in the first half alone. He ended the night with 15 points and 16 boards for his second career double-double.
"I was joking with coach on my way up here, he said that was the most rebounds I've ever had total compared to my freshman year," Langford said. "I just wanted to go out and give my best effort for my team and try to do all I could for them."
His defense, combined with the Spartans' all-around effort on that end of the court, held Illinois’ offense to one of their worst shooting performance of the season as the Illini shot 40% from the field.
Th Spartans only had eight turnovers in the game, tied for their second-lowest total this season.
Illinois knocks on the door late
With just under seven minutes to go, MSU found themselves uncomfortable for perhaps the first time all night as Julius Marble II and Thomas Kithier found themselves on the bench with five fouls.
Then coach Tom Izzo turned to freshman Mady Sissoko.
Shortly after though, Sissoko was called with for a flagrant foul after a collision with Illinois' Ayo Dosunmo that led to Sissoko being ejected from the game and leaving Marcus Bingham Jr., who had tallied four fouls himself, on thin ice as MSU’s only center.
"We got a lot out of our collection of bigs," Izzo said. "We just kind of rotated guys in there and we thought we had a decent game plan."
But the Spartans held their ground specifically behind junior forward Aaron Henry, who seems to have finally found his groove.
Henry was unstoppable in the paint, fighting through any orange jersey in his way to put up 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting. The Spartans are 6-1 on the year in games where Henry attempts 14 or more shots.
Dosunmu, who averaged 21.2 points per game as Illinois' leading scorer heading into the matchup, was held to 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting.
Michigan State flipped the script by forcing 11 Illinois turnovers to make for 13 Spartan points.
MSU accelerated on arguably their best start of the season to enter halftime with a 36-26 edge on the Illini.
The momentum stayed similar as the two squads entered the second half, with added aggression coming from both teams as they fought to prove their cases.
The game was scrappy. Bingham found three blocks alone to contribute to MSU's nine total. The Spartans snatched seven steals as well.
MSU will have one day to prep before hosting No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday at 9 p.m. in a game that gained a lot more attention after the Spartans' win, which puts them three games under .500 in the Big Ten. Fans can view Thursday's game on ESPN.
"We're not too much into compliments right now, we can't be patting ourselves on the back," Langford said. "We have to keep taking things in stride and keep moving forward."
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