It was the Illinois Lumberjacks vs. the Michigan State Blacksmiths at the Assembly Hall. Two hard working, blue-collar teams known for their defenses fought it out tooth and nail Tuesday night. For the fans, it was as tortuous at times as enduring a root canal, but the win helped make up for it.
Illini coach Bruce Weber acknowledged the nature of the game.
"It was not the prettiest game you've ever seen. To get a win like that, to battle the way our kids did, I'm just really happy for them and excited.
"We could have easily lost, we could have easily won some of the other games. But this is a 'W' in the book against a very good team."
The win earns no style points, but it will definitely help the UI's ranking when the NCAA Tournament rolls around. Defeating the #9 team in the country is huge for the team's RPI. This is the first time the Illini have earned wins against two top 10 teams since the fabled 2004-05 season. It was also the seventh win against a top 100 opponent this year.
Right now, Weber is focusing solely on the Big 10 championship race.
"We don't have to play them up there, so you're one up on them."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was heartbroken. Besides losing the game, he may have lost his superstar. Draymond Green, who played only 16 minutes due to foul trouble, injured his knee late and left on crutches. But Izzo was magnanimous in defeat.
"I'm very disappointed, but I don't want to take anything away from Illinois. It's hard to get your team up when you lose three games. I thought their guys played so hard. It's a great tribute to Bruce. They beat us, they deserved to win."
It was obvious from the start it would be a long night for both teams. The Illini committed turnovers on their first two possessions, and Tracy Abrams missed two free throws on the third. But the Spartans were stuck in the mud also, except on the offensive glass. In the first 3:20 of the game, they had 8 boards including seven off their own misses. But the score remained in single digits.
The Illini had a 22-20 lead going into the second half, thanks to shooting 36% compared with 23% for the Spartans. Illinois got the first two buckets of the second stanza, and they held a 35-29 lead before the Spartans fought back.
Playing volleyball on the offensive glass, they had three possessions with the ball without sharing it two different times. Travis Trice hit a corner three to make it 35-34. After Brandon Paul took an ill-advised three, the Spartans took their first lead of the second half on a Green bank shot. Meyers Leonard missed a dunk, and MSU freshman Branden Dawson banked one home to give his team a 40-37 lead.
That is when Illini freshman Tracy Abrams asserted himself. With the shot clock running down, Abrams came off a screen, found himself wide open and calmly swished a three to tie the game. He was as relaxed explaining it afterward as shooting it.
"Early this morning, I came in with Coach (Wayne) McClain and got some shots up. Essentially, it was the same shot we were working on. I saw it before the play happened, so I was shooting. It went in. Right timing."
Weber agrees Abrams has guts.
"Tracy is almost better in the games than he is in practice. He came off that screen. Everybody else was jammed, and they backed off. He jumped up and made it. That was huge.
"Tracy loves to play. He's got that toughness, that pied piper. He just wants to win and be part of something special."
The end was excruciating to watch, for both teams. Paul hit two free throws to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish, but he then missed free throws in bonus situations that would have padded the result. Derrick Nix made one freebie for MSU but missed one to help the UI maintain the lead.
Keith Appling had a chance to win it at the end with a drive inside 8 seconds, but it missed and Paul grabbed the rebound. There was more relief than celebration for Illini players and fans alike.
D.J. Richardson admitted the Illini wanted to muddy the waters.
"That was our key, playing aggressive from the beginning. Defending 94 feet the whole game. We tried to ugly the game up, and that's the type of game we made it."
Weber, whose job may be on the line this season, cares only about wins. He was even able to joke about the poor shooting, the Illini hitting just 32.6% of their shots and an atrocious 17.6% from the arc.
"I don't care if it's ugly. When the shots go up, I just say, 'Please God, let it go in.'"
Weber says Michigan State is probably the best defensive team the Illini will play this year. In return, the Illini did a fairly good job defensively as well, holding MSU under 25% shooting for the game. Weber was proud of the effort.
"We again had almost 40 on the MATTO. Brandon had 17, so he topped his 15. I was hoping we'd do a better job on the boards, but it's just a hard, physical game, a typical Big 10 game, you found a way to win."
Paul was the only Illini in double figures with 18 points. He was most effective driving to the hoop for layins and free throws. He was least effective on threes, hitting only one of six and forcing a couple. He added 9 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals to go with four turnovers.
"We needed a win," Paul explained afterward. "We didn't play well at all, but it's a confidence booster. I'm happy about this win. Coach said it was a character game, and that's definitely what it was. I think we out-toughed them the whole game."
Paul also acknowledged the crowd, dressed for Operation Blue-Out and supportive throughout the game.
"Shout out to the crowd, they were amazing tonight. They came out with all blue. We couldn't be more proud of them, and we hope they're proud of us. Everybody pulled for us."
Myke Henry came off the bench to add six points. He had two tip-ins and two free throws.
"I thought Myke Henry gave us good minutes," Weber added. "He has a knack for scoring. He battled Branden Dawson. They played together in AAU in the summer."
Freshmen Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde also saw minutes. Neither scored, but both battled MSU's size while spelling Leonard. Weber also wanted everyone to know about the contributions Mike Shaw is making to the team even when he doesn't get off the bench.
"Mike Shaw has done a great job with the freshmen. For not playing, for keeping a positive attitude and really helping the team. He's shown a lot of maturity. Him and Tracy have been the leaders of that group. They've gotten an apartment already for next year, six of them in one place."
The Illini host Northwestern Sunday, and they want payback for the UI win in Evanston. The Illini can't have a letdown. Despite the constant pressure to win, Weber can still joke about his team going into the rest of the season.
"I'm happy for them. Maybe a little bit of pressure off. Now you come back Sunday. You're still gonna have to play, every game you'll have to play. But maybe we'll let loose a little bit and get 50. That would be great."