Michigan State basketball pulls off much-needed upset, beats No. 4 Illinois, 81-72

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Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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EAST LANSING — Don’t label Michigan State basketball’s NCAA hopes for dead.

And don’t bet against Tom Izzo when he feels like his team is being counted out and considered underdogs – even when they are as undersized and undermanned as could be.

That’s when things happen like Tuesday night’s 81-72 victory over No. 4 Illinois that jumpstarted the Spartans’ pulse at the start of a pivotal stretch of six games in 13 days to close the Big Ten regular season.

MSU put together its most cohesive performance of the conference slate, perhaps all season, and played with the toughness of a team fighting for its postseason life in a backyard brawl from days of yore.. Captains Joshua Langford and Aaron Henry lit the fire, combining for 35 points and 22 rebounds as eight Spartans scored, eight grabbed at least a rebound, and eight handed out at least one assist.

Izzo nearly ran out of big men to use against Illini 7-footer Kofi Cockburn when both Julius Marble II and Thomas Kithier fouled out with more than 7 minutes to play, then freshman Mady Sissoko got called for a flagrant-2 foul on Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu and got ejected. That left Izzo with just Marcus Bingham Jr. among his four centers, and he had four fouls.

Joey Hauser instead took over for most of the final 4:08, and the 6-foot-9 junior drilled a critical 3-pointer with 2:55 to play that put MSU back ahead by 11. Illinois coach Brad Underwood had to pull Cockburn to go with a shooter lineup late to try and catch up.

Hauser hit four free throws in 1-and-1 situations in the final 1:36. He and Rocket Watts each scored 13 for MSU, which shot 54.2% overall and had 18 assists on 32 baskets.

It does not get any easier for the Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten), who host No. 5 Ohio State at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

Trent Frazier scored 22 points, Dosunmu had 17 points and nine rebounds, and Cockburn scored 13 with just six rebounds for Illinois (16-6, 12-4), which had won seven in a row.

Best of times

Considering the offensive and defensive prowess of the Illini, it may have been the Spartans’ best start of the season.

After giving up the first five points with its “small ball” lineup – Rocket Watts, Langford, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry and Julius Marble II – MSU started to dissect Illinois’ defense.

Watts drove and scored to start 10-0 run, with he and Langford following with a pair of foul-line jumpers coming out of the first media timeout. Henry then drove baseline and hit floater, then A.J. Hoggard came off the bench and sliced into the lane and shoveled to Joey Hauser for a short jumper.

Meantime, MSU locked up Illinois’ stars. Both of Cockburn’s buckets came on second-chance dunks, and Henry, Watts and Langford took turns throughout the half to hold the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer to seven points on 2 of 9 shooting. The Illini made just 7 of 29 shots in the period.

And the Spartans used their speed and athletic ability with the smaller group to crash the glass and got out running in transition. They had 12 fastbreak points at halftime and 12 assists on 16 baskets, making 53.3% to take a 36-26 lead at the break.

Langford’s best

This game clearly meant plenty to Langford, the Spartans’ only senior who is in his fifth season and third as a captain. He had 11 points and 13 rebounds at halftime for his second career double-double.

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound shooting guard, conscripted into playing some point as well, put together.

Langford was everywhere and doing everything Tuesday, from scoring on long jumpers to attacking the glass like Izzo hoped he would before he had two surgeries on his left foot. He even had a soaring blocked shot negated by a foul on the floor.

His first double-double ad 18 points and 10 rebounds vs. Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 11, 2018, shortly before his first of two foot injuries that cost him a season and a half.

Langford snagged his 16th rebound with a minute to play with MSU up 12 and sent an outlet pass to Watts, who was fouled and made both free throws. Watts assisted to Brown for a thunderous dunk with 31.2 seconds left for the exclamation point.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball gets needed upset, beats Illinois, 81-72

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Indiana
+145+4.5O 136.5
Michigan St.
-176-4.5U 136.5