In Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo’s eyes, there are not usually lessons that can be taken from a conference loss. But on Saturday, Izzo was looking at one silver lining after the Spartans’ fourth loss in five games, this time to Big Ten-leading Illinois.
“I do think this is one of the rare times in my career that I felt like we made some progress with a loss,” Izzo said. “I don't ever prescribe to 'that loss was good for you.' It's only good for you if you don't have leaders and you don't have competitors that are trying to win every game. I mean, we took a step in the right direction.”
The silver lining Izzo was talking about was the fight his team displayed in the final nine minutes of the game, whittling a 16-point deficit all the way down to two points before eventually losing 79-74.
Michigan State was well on its way of getting run out of its own gym by Big Ten-leading Illinois halfway through the second half before junior guard Tyson Walker single-handedly willed a comeback that almost allowed MSU to steal a victory in a game they were dominated in a majority of the time.
In just his third game off the bench this season, Walker scored a team-high 26 points, 24 of which came in the second half, on 83.3% shooting (10-12). Over the final six and a half minutes of the game, Walker took over for the Spartans, scoring 20 of the team’s final 24 points while trying to erase a double-digit deficit that had existed for nearly the entire game.
“I started recognizing that I had shots in the first half that I wasn't taking off ballscreens and I just started taking them and being more aggressive,” Walker said.
Walker checked back into the game with 7:33 left with the scoreboard reading 64-52 Illinois and began to go to work. It started with a 15-foot jumper over junior center Kofi Cockburn off a screen from junior center Julius Marble II to cut the lead to 10.
After three points from Illinois to make it a 13-point lead, Walker went back to the pick and roll with Marble and came free for a three to make it 10 again. 30 seconds later, it was a single digit deficit again for the Spartans thanks to a hook shot from Marble.
The Spartans were able to get another stop quickly, putting the ball back in Walker’s hands with four minutes left. Walker immediately called for another ballscreen on the left wing and drained another three as his defender was stuck trying to maneuver around Marble’s wide body to make it 67-62 Illinois.
The score quickly morphed from five points to two points in the next minute as Walker poured in two more jumpers, one midrange and one three, to answer yet another basket from Cockburn, who finished with a game-high 29 points.
Walker answered another Cockburn basket with a jumper, keeping Illinois’ lead at two with just over a minute left. Illinois managed to only score one point after splitting a pair of free throws making it 74-71, giving MSU a chance to tie the game. Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard, the team’s other point guard, tried to flip the ball to Walker but gave it straight to Illinois for a turnover.
The Illini were able to push the lead to five points which proved to be insurmountable in the final 45 seconds by the Spartans even though Walker was able to get another and-1 for a three-point play.
All in all, Walker scored 18 points in the final six and a half minutes in the attempted comeback.
“I didn't even know I had that many points until about like a minute left and I looked up. But the shots were just going in. I work on those shots damn near every day. So just taking them and confidence is always there — there's never a shot I don't think I can make."
The midrange was where Walker did most of the damage late, taking advantage of Illinois’ strict drop-only defensive scheme that keeps Cockburn anchored in the paint on ball screens. That approach left a lot of space for MSU’s point guards to operate, giving the green light to Walker’s pullups.
“They do what we call 'Shaq-ing' it,” Izzo said. “They drop him (Cockburn) so coming off those ballscreens he (Walker) was open and then we started rescreening that because we wanted to get some threes because we thought we're gonna get back in the game and to his credit, he made 'em but a little bit too much too late.”
The two-man game between Walker and Marble powered the offense completely down the stretch, as the two of them combined for eight of the last nine baskets for MSU (eight from Walker, one from Marble). Each possession started with a high ballscreen from Marble for Walker, which sprang him free for open jumper after open jumper.
“I knew they were turning the ball screens down and Kofi was gonna sit in the paint,” Marble said. “So if I hit the guy really hard, he was gonna be able to come off and shoot a shot. And if not, I come back and rescreen and he's gonna be able to shoot a three or be able to drive depending on how hard I set the screen.”
Walker’s success in the second half powered MSU to score 52 points in just 20 minutes after only scoring 22 in the first half. The inconsistency today early was one of Izzo’s biggest pet peeves, but the breakthrough provided a learning opportunity for the team despite the loss.
It also gave a possible answer to one of the largest looming questions circling MSU basketball.
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The emergence, or lack thereof, of a go-to option on offense has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding this team and Walker’s torrid second half was a strong sign that MSU possesses the type of players that can take over at a moment’s notice.
In the second half, Walker went unconscious and almost willed the Spartans to a win that they did not deserve. That type of output has been sorely missed from this team and Saturday looked to provide a possible solution. With the team’s two best scorers in senior forward Gabe Brown and freshman guard Max Christie struggling mightily, Walker was there to hit the big shots.
In Walker’s eyes, however, he is not the new go-to guy for MSU after one strong half. He said the team has the talent to ride the hot hand, whoever that may be.
“Whoever has the hot hand will get that shot,” Walker said. “It doesn't matter who, it just goes by that game .”
On Saturday, Walker was that man for the first time as a Spartan and provided a glimpse into what kind of scorer and big time player he can be when given ample opportunity.
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