The Spartans had been down for 35 minutes that night but a 6-0 run over the final two-and-a-half minutes and a five-plus minute scoring drought from Illinois brought the road team right back on the doorstep of a possible win. It was a patch of familiar territory for a Michigan State team that has made it their destiny in some outings this season to finish in the most convoluted way possible.
And when sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins got called for the foul on driving junior forward Malik Hall, the straw that stirred the drink that was Michigan State’s final desperation gasp, a rough 15,544 groaned. Moaned. Shook their heads. Clasped their hands around the back of their necks.
With Hall at the line, shooting two to tie, they yelled.
Clang. Hall missed. That 15,544 didn’t wait for him to make his second free throw or senior guard Trent Frazier to touch the ball off the inbounds pass to dribble away the final 0.2 on the clock or to think about whether they were cheering out of triumph or relief before they celebrated.
In the noise, the Spartans (15-4, 6-2) added another confusing depth as Illinois picked up a shorthanded statement win.
Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo did not disguise his displeasure when talking about the loss. Nor did he mask the source of his ire.
“The beat goes on,” Izzo said. “The problems go away for a game and then they come back. And that’s a lack of good coaching. Practices (are) gonna have to be worse every single day because a couple of those guys, (you) give them an inch and they just lose focus.”
The 56-55 loss marked Michigan State’s second loss in the final seconds in three games, with the last one dating back to Northwestern on Jan. 12. Along with the finishes, the parallels between the contests start with the personnel, or lack thereof: Northwestern was without their leading scorer in senior forward Pete Nance while Illinois didn’t have sophomore guard Andre Curbelo or junior center Kofi Cockburn, a national player of the year candidate.
However, the Illini did have Frazier. With 16 points and five assists, he was the dynamo for them, gashing away for 10 straight in the early going to put the Spartans in trouble as they worked through a sluggish start also reminiscent of the Northwestern game.
“It started off all with our energy,” senior forward Gabe Brown said. “We got to come out ready to play, we got to come out with a lot more energy because that was the key of the game … we didn’t bring that today.”
The comparisons between the losses end there. Michigan State’s “hideous” offense cratered for a season-low 20 points in the opening period, assuring an early double-digit deficit at the end of a confounding half.
“We’ve been consistently inconsistent,” Izzo said. “And every time I think we’re taking a few steps forward, there’s a couple guys that take two steps back.”
One of the steps backward: Michigan State’s dismal shooting performance, serving as a massive dip for a team that ranks in the upper half of the Big Ten in most shooting statistics. For instance, BartTorvik lists their team average effective field goal percentage at 52.7%, good for fifth in the conference.
Against Illinois, they settled at 37.3%, their worst single-game rating in the statistic all season.
That number is a credit to a good Illinois defense allowing Michigan State’s fewest triples all season (3-14, 21.4%), missed or blocked layups and what Izzo pointed out as an array of bad shots in the first half, something he said the team hasn’t struggled with thus far. But it’s also a sign of passing dysfunction with the Spartans’ notching a season-low nine assists as their sometimes freewheeling attack sputtered instead of finding the natural flow on display in their win against Wisconsin.
“It's probably more positive things than negative,” Izzo said. “I just did not like the way our guards ran our team ... We turned the ball over nine times in the first half, how do you get into any rhythm? It’s the same old, same old problem. You have two (in) the second half, it’s not like they quit playing. They just took care of the ball … you hold a team to 56 points, the way we’ve been playing, you should be able to win a game.”
Walker, in particular, exhibited some of the struggles that have plagued him from the start of the season, not limited to his three turnovers. Even with a team-high 10 attempts from the field, there were still what Izzo viewed as passed-up shots and a tendency to stay unselfish as opportunity beckoned.
“The way they were guarding us on those ball screens, we thought he’d have a lot of 15-foot shots and he had a couple of them late but I didn’t think he was being aggressive and I think he's got to be more aggressive there,” Izzo said.
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Through it all, Michigan State hung tough on the defensive end in the second half and cobbled together a final surge to close in on Illinois with time going fast. The problems of the first half were almost wiped away with two free throws—almost.
“That game was lost way before that,” Izzo said. “Two points is two points, whether it’s the beginning, middle or end.”
As for the gutting finish? Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr., one of the offense’s bright spots against Illinois and the final free throw shooter in the Northwestern game, said he knows how it feels to go to the line that late and come up short.
“It hurts, man,” he said. “We work on free throws a lot. I don’t think nobody’s going up to the free throw line looking to miss it.”
Izzo, who admitted he should’ve played him more in the first half for his steadying presence, said he felt Hall was more than mentally tough enough to weather the strain of the late-game misses. Amid more curious inconsistencies, the coach reverted back to his belief in the long game when talking about the late miss: the wins and the losses can be taken, so long as his team gets better.
“Hell, (Hall's) coach carried a newspaper article around for 25 years, because I missed a one-and-one to go to the state semis,” Izzo said of a famous miss he had in the for Iron Mountain High in 1972. “He’s got a good teacher. He’s got a good guy to tell him how much it sucks. But hey, you gotta work through it.”
That sums up answering a wake-up call only to bunker down for a tough sleep as well as anything.
Still, the beat goes on.
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