Illinois and Michigan State exchanged leads 14 times Saturday night, but the Spartans went on a late 9-0 run to give them the cushion they needed to win the game. In nine of their ten losses, the Illini have held a lead or were tied in the second half, including this game. For Illini coach Bruce Weber, it was the same old story.
"We had some chances. But we didn't make the smart plays. We battled, we grinded it out, but now when it comes to gut-check, you've got to do the little things. And you've got to play with discipline and do things that get you wins."
Kalin Lucas was a one-man wrecking crew for MSU. He scored 25 points on a variety of shots from drives to the hoop to threes. No Illini could stay in front of him, his quickness fully returned from Achilles surgery. He was by far the difference in the game as he hit 6 of 10 second half shots.
"It was something we talked about before," Weber stated. "Somebody had to be special, but the guy who was special on the court was on the other team. He rose up and made 11 straight points in the second half."
No one could defend Lucas adequately, but Weber also remembered plays where the Illini gave him an advantage.
"We tried different people on him, but a couple were not smart plays. Demetri (McCamey) goes for a steal, and D.J. (Richardson) leaves Lucas to guard (Mike) Kebler. Let Kebler make a play.
"There's a scramble for a loose ball, and Brandon (Paul) overdid it and left Lucas, and now he makes two threes. You can't give him points. He rose up and made the plays."
McCamey, Lucas's counterpart at point guard, led the Illini with 15 points and handed out five assists. But Weber said he didn't always handle important situations well.
"Demetri has to be a little smarter down the stretch. If you're gonna be the guy, you have to be smart. You've got to be aware of the shot clock. If you have a two on one, you've got to be sure you get something. You've got to value the ball."
The Illini played good defense at times, especially the first half when they held MSU to 31% shooting. Both teams demonstrated the tension of a tight Big 10 race, missing one shot after another in a physical first half.
It looked more like a football game at times as both teams battled tooth and nail to gain an advantage. Defenses dominated for both teams; both teams endured lengthy scoring droughts.
McCamey penetrated and dished to Mike Davis for a layup just before the halftime buzzer to give the Illini a precarious 26-25 lead going into the second stanza.
Both teams came out hot to start the second half, but the Spartans outscored the Illini 11-6 to take a four point lead. The Illini battled back, a Paul drive giving putting them up 39-36. But MSU scored the next six points. Davis hit a jumper to tie the score 51-51, but the Spartans then hit nine straight points to put the game out of reach.
Davis scored 14 points and had five rebounds in another good effort. Mike Tisdale fought hard in the paint, playing good defense and scoring 9 points. Jereme Richmond saw his most extensive action of the year, playing 29 minutes and scoring 7 points. Paul hit two threes after the game was decided to raise his point total to 12.
The Illini continue to play tight as their poor shooting attests. Weber tried positive reinforcement to help them relax, to no avail.
"We had a couple good days of practice," Weber remembered. "I was hoping we'd come up here and play loose and free, but we didn't."
The Illini are now 7 and 7 in the Big 10, and their next game could be their toughest yet according to Weber.
"Now we've got to go to Ohio State against a team that's probably better."