Illinois came to play Tuesday. Casting off the shackles of two frustrating road losses, the Illini played like a championship-level team. Of course, so did the Spartans. It game boiled down to a gargantuan struggle between two outstanding teams, and the Illini pulled away at the end.
Illini coach Bruce Weber summarized the game.
"It was a hard-fought win for our kids. The men of Michigan State battled and battled. It got going up and down pretty fast early. Second half was a little more physical, not quite as free-flowing. We get a little bit of a lead and then they pick up the pressure on defense and get after us on the boards.
"We settled down and controlled the boards down the stretch. They didn't shoot it real well second half, and we were able to contain them on the rebounds. That was probably the difference in the game. We played like a team tonight. We played for Illinois, and we played hard. That's why we had success."
MSU coach Tom Izzo agreed about the quality of the game.
"It was a hell of a game. Both teams played extremely hard. When you play that hard and only had 10 and 9 turnovers, it was pretty good.
"Bruce has got a good team. Like everybody else in this league, it's gonna be hard to win on the road. It was a hell of a game for us as far as competing. We put ourselves in position, they made the big plays and we didn't. That was the difference in the game."
Izzo credited Illini guard Demetri McCamey for penetrating and getting fouled as well as keeping his teammates involved. McCamey had his eighth career double-double with 15 points and 11 assists despite a tight back that requires frequent ice.
However, it was the play of Illini reserves Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond that really turned the tide. Paul scored 20 points, 17 in the first half. He hit 4 of 6 threes, pulled down three rebounds, played good defense including an important shot block, and hustled for loose balls. Paul was humble afterward.
"I just wanted to come out with a lot of energy."
Richmond, who sat out the Wisconsin road loss after missing two days of practice working our personal issues, had a career scoring day with 14 points. He hit six of eight shots from the field and two free throws, grabbed five boards and handed out three assists.
Weber was pleased with both players.
"Those guys can do some things that other guys can't do. They can put the ball on the floor, Jereme can go inside-outside. When Brandon has rhythm threes I'm fine with it."
Richmond gave only a brief explanation for his two day absence from the team.
"There wasn't much to it. I just had to touch bases with my family. I came back with a more refined focus."
Weber is glad Richmond is back and ready to play his best ball.
"I thought he was great. I'm happy for him. It's a little bit of a monkey off the back. I think overall it was his best game. In this tense environment, when we really needed it, he played well."
Also playing well was Mike Davis. The enigmatic power forward enjoyed another double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. More than that, he played for his team and let nothing distract him. There was no pouting, no poor body language this night.
"Usually he depends on scoring," Weber reminded. "He didn't score much first half. But he rebounded well, he guarded well, he was active. And he was happy with it. That's what we need from him."
Weber was asked if he has finally figured out the right buttons to push with Davis.
"I have no idea. I wish I could tell you. I said, 'Please do it again Saturday.' A lot of people have tried to talk to him and help him. It's him inside. Somehow we've got to bottle it up and have him come back and play with that great energy."
The Illini went on a 7-0 run midway through a fast-paced first half, helping them to a four point halftime lead, one they never relinquished. They went on a 7-1 run at the beginning of the second half to attain a ten point margin and then fought to hold off the determined Spartans.
After a Davis lob dunk made it 59-50, the Illini made only one basket the last 11 minutes of the game. However, that Mike Tisdale jumper was key as it helped the Illini regain a 7 point lead after MSU had fought back. The Illini salted the game away with 10 free throws.
Weber saw several things he liked besides the individual efforts.
"I asked them all before the game, 'Are we a good team?' We are a really good team when we play hard and move the basketball. I loved the stretch at the beginning of the second half. We just kept making the extra pass. We can make shots, but you've got to move the basketball. You can't hit home runs all the time."
Weber also praised the Illini defense.
"We played pretty good defense. The scoring sheet says zero fast break points for them, which is pretty impressive. That's their thing. That's what Tom's teams have always done.
"We went small just to match their quickness. That allowed us to switch on ball screens down the stretch. That really stagnated them. They lost their penetration, which was our purpose.
"I was worried about (Draymond) Green. He is very good and can do so many things. Overall, I think we did a pretty good job on him."
The Illini traveled to Wisconsin, hosted Michigan State and now entertain #1 Ohio State Saturday morning. Weber reminds how difficult that combination of consecutive games against ranked teams can be.
"We are playing a real tough stretch where we're playing three tough teams in a row. I think everyone goes through these stretches somewhere in their schedule. We were fortunate to get one, now we need to see if we can get a second one on Saturday. It's not gonna be any easier."
The Illini are now 14-5 on the season, 4-2 in the Big 10. The Buckeyes will be by far their biggest test yet according to Davis.
"It's a huge game. We wanted to take care of business tonight and look forward to Ohio State Saturday. They're ranked #1, and it's gonna be a tough task, a big challenge. Our goal for this season was to win our games at home. We need all the guys to help us take down this monster on Saturday."