EAST LANSING – Michigan State basketball is desperately seeking quality wins to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.
In 13 days, MSU will play multiple opponents ranked in the top-5 nationally, including Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State.
Tuesday night, the Spartans were locked in, defending the Fighting Illini's two best players in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, holding them to a combined 11 first half points (9-for-14), eight rebounds, and two assists.
If anyone was looking for the carryover from a 78-71 victory over Indiana, they need not look further than tonight when MSU finally resembled their old selves.
Michigan State found ways to play faster and create for each other with 18 assists on 32 buckets (4-for-8 from deep). In large part, MSU found success because of the suffocating defense they played.
Overall, the Spartans shot 54% from the field (32-of-59), led by Aaron Henry, who helped put the clamps on Dosunmu, along with Rocket Watts.
Joshua Langford, Michigan State's only senior, also helped contribute on both ends, grabbing ten rebounds before halftime, matching his career-high.
It was far from over, but the Alabama native continued to be a calming presence for MSU as he acquired a double-double early in the second half.
Yet, the Spartans were able to reach higher and meet their potential against Illinois due to their lack of turnovers (five with 14:45 left in regulation) – couple that with an aggressive defense and Michigan State's 16-point lead made sense.
Even the most die-hard MSU fans thought the Illini would go on a run at some point, but with less than 12 minutes remaining, the Spartans increased their lead to 18.
Illinois, meanwhile, had made 11-of-37 attempts (30%), turned the ball over ten times, and seven shots were blocked.
Plus, at that point, eight Spartans had scored, grabbed at least one board, and dished at least one assist – it was the most balanced Michigan State had been all year.
However, MSU's big men began racking up fouls, leaving Julius Marble and Thomas Kithier on the bench with seven minutes to go.
Then before anyone could blink, Mady Sissoko was called for a flagrant two foul and ejected, leaving the Spartans with Marcus Bingham Jr. (4 fouls), Joey Hauser, and Malik Hall.
In case anyone needed a reminder, Hauser guarding Cockburn isn't what MSU wants, but it was the redshirt junior that pulled up from beyond the arc, draining a huge 3-pointer to keep the Spartans ahead, 71-59.
At the end of it all sat Henry, Watts, and Hauser hitting clutch free throws to finish strong, giving MSU a win against the No. 5 team in the country (AP Poll).
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