Michigan State fell to Illinois 79-74 for their second consecutive loss and a season sweep at the hands of the Illini.
Graduate student guard Jacob Grandison dropped 24 points on 8-12 shooting to help down the Spartans while junior center Kofi Cockburn more than made his mark in the interior with 27 points and 9 rebounds. Michigan State was led by junior guard Tyson Walker’s 26 points and sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard’s 15 points while redshirt senior Joey Hauser notched 11 points as the Spartans trailed all game.
One of the top teams in the conference, Illinois imposed their will on the Spartans from start to finish, getting a lead they’d never lose off a game-opening triple from graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer.
The Spartans first half mirrored their opening period against Illinois on Jan. 25 as they struggled to find any semblance of offensive consistency, shooting 31% from the field and going on a six minute scoring drought while Illinois pressed on. Buoyed by a quick five points at the start from senior forward Gabe Brown, Michigan State soon found themselves struggling to stay in it as turnovers piled up and one of the best defenses in the league pressured them into late and contested shots to cap off fruitless possessions.
As the Spartans worked to defend their opponent’s multi-faceted attack, the Illini rattled off a 9-0 run and found their difference maker in Grandison. The veteran guard corked off five threes to the tune of 15 points in the first half, only getting in a further rhythm with each and every attempt no matter the time on the shot clock. Even on a pure desperation attempt, Grandison notched his fifth triple to make it 34-20 and further stunt the Spartans as they entered halftime down 12.
Meanwhile, Michigan State seemed as if it couldn’t find anybody to take the reins and start making shots to whittle their deficit down. First half possessions were largely reminiscent of the Penn State game, ending in last second drives to the basket or ill-advised shots to finish aimless, meandering attempts that frustrated the home crowd as Illinois kept racing away.
Michigan State showed some signs of life at the start of the second half with four straight points from Hoggard and a three from senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. to cut the deficit to single digits. But as Grandison started to cool, Illinois simply resorted to Cockburn as he went to work under the basket, chipping away against the Spartans’ bigs as the crowd's cheers and jabs did little to deter the road team.
Picking up where he left off against Penn State, Walker showed no hesitation shooting the ball and brought the Spartans back within single digits with a pair of midrange jumpers. Still, Illinois continued to hammer away, attacking from any and all angles while Michigan State’s improved performance wasn’t enough to bring them all the way back into the thick of the game.
Even as Hauser answered a three from Grandison with one of his own to make it 54-44, the Spartans couldn’t shake the look of a team fighting from behind and looking to get something to fall their way. The trend continued when Hauser hit on another triple to make it 62-52 and the Illini surged ahead, playing the part of the aggressor on the road.
As the task remained daunting, Michigan State still continued to fight. Walker hit a three and Marble notched a hook shot to cut their deficit to 67-59 with 4:24 to go. Resuming play after an injury to sophomore guard Andre Curbelo, Walker nailed yet another three.
Five point game with 3:30 to go. Gut-checking time.
In the final minutes, the game seemingly devolved into a battle between Walker and Cockburn as both teams got the bulk of their production in the final minutes from both. The Spartans once again turned back to Walker again as he notched another jumper to make it 67-64 off a turnover from Cockburn. Cockburn answered in the post to keep Illinois ahead by a slim margin.
Then Walker hit another three to make it a two point game. Hoggard checked in and notched a jumper of his own to make it 71-69 with 1:38 to go as the crowd boiled over in excitement.
The Illini got a key bucket from Frazier off a turnover from Hoggard, but again, Walker just continued to come up with something. Another three, another jumper-it appeared to be the best offensive rhythm Walker had been in all season.
It wasn’t enough. Clinging to a 76-74 lead, Frazier brought the ball down the court and aced a three to make it 79-74 with 23.2 seconds left. It proved to be the dagger as Michigan State’s ensuing possession came up fruitless and another comeback bid against the Illini failed.
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