EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)—Tom Izzo turned Michigan State into a national power, building his program upon a foundation of toughness.
The eighth-ranked Spartans set a school record with a 51-41 win over Illinois on Wednesday, but none of them were in the mood to celebrate.
“Scared isn’t the right word, but we looked a little intimated to me,” Izzo said. “It bothers me and kind of takes the luster off it.”
Drew Neitzel scored nine of his 15 points during a key stretch in the second half, helping Michigan State (19-2, 7-1 Big Ten) survive and reach its best 21-game record in the program’s 109-year history.
“The milestone will probably mean more to me tomorrow than it does right now,” Izzo said.
The Illini (10-12, 2-7) didn’t make it easy.
Illinois went on a 17-2 run after a rough start, led at halftime and responded to Neitzel’s scoring flurry by taking a 32-31 lead.
The Spartans took control with a 9-2 run, then took advantage of shooting free throws while the Illini struggled at the line as usual to hurt their chances.
“We kept it within a couple of possessions, but still the free throws are so tough for us,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We foul them, and they make two. Then we come down, drive to the basket, get fouled and don’t make free throws we need.
“I wish it wasn’t the same story, but it’s been like that all year for us.”
Illinois made fewer than 50 percent of its free throws in a single-digit losses to Purdue, Arizona and Maryland.
Against Michigan State, the Illini were 5-of-14 at the line in the second half and finished 7-of-19.
“That’s kind of the story of our season,” Trent Meacham said. “We’re in the fight every game, but we miss so many free throws.”
Illinois scored just two points in the last 4:49, missing eight of 10 free throws, both 3-point attempts and committing three turnovers.
“We were lucky they missed so many free throws,” Michigan State’s Goran Suton said. “We would’ve lost otherwise.”
Illinois reserves Mike Tisdale and Calvin Brock each scored seven points and a couple other players had six points.
“Obviously we’re not an offensive juggernaut,” Weber said. “Our defense kept us in there.”
Suton and Raymar Morgan scored 10 points apiece before fouling out for the Spartans, who have won all 13 games at home this season and 17 straight dating to last year.
Michigan State lost to the Illini the only other time it had a chance to be 19-2, during the 2000-01 season, when it went on to win the Big Ten title for the fourth straight time and advance to a third consecutive Final Four.
“It’s special considering all the great players and all the great teams we’ve had here,” senior Drew Naymick said. “But it’s the last year for me and Neitzel. All we want is a title.”
Both teams have been conference powers in recent years, but Illinois is struggling—in part because freshman star Eric Gordon chose to play for Indiana after committing to the Illini. Illinois might finish with a losing season for just the second time in 16 years.
The Spartans limited Shaun Pruitt and Meacham to eight points combined after the pair entered the game averaging 23-plus points.
Michigan State shot just 35 percent in the first half and missed all five of his 3-pointers after making 59 percent of its shots overall and 47 percent of its 3s in the previous two games.
“We missed some shots early and they took it to us, and I didn’t like how we responded,” Izzo said. “When we got knocked in the mouth, we didn’t respond very well. They’re definitely the toughest team we’ve played.”
The Spartans didn’t shoot much better in the second half, finishing at 37 percent. But they held Illinois to 30-percent shooting.
“I guess you have to be excited about a win, but I’m disappointed in the way we played,” Izzo said. “It was a win, not a very pretty one, but a win is a win.”