The Fighting Illini overcame adversity throughout a 59-54 win over the Spartans Saturday afternoon, particularly when a rare dead-ball technical at the foul line offered Michigan State a win that wasn't accepted.
"It was one of those grinders with both teams really going at it, throwing haymakers," Groce said after the third consecutive win for Illinois (16-8, 6-5 Big Ten). "I was most proud of the way we responded and were able to make plays on the next possession."
Denzel Valentine had 16 points and seven rebounds for the Spartans (15-8, 6-4), but fouled out after missing a 6-foot shot that would have given his team a 56-55 lead. And Travis Trice was held to six points on 2-for-10 shooting from the field, 1 of 5 from distance and 1 of 3 on free throws.
"Free throws and stops, that's what killed us," Trice said. "It's lack of focus and missed free throws at the end. It's simple. We didn't execute."
After the Fighting Illini were called for a technical, Michigan State got just two points from four free throws and Valentine missed his shot on the same possession. The Spartans were 7 of 18 at the line, showing why they entered the game 14th in the conference in free throws and 321st in the nation.
"To me it's utterly unacceptable," Izzo said of his team's inability to convert. "I'll take full and complete responsibility for it. Probably not the most disappointed I've been but the maddest I've been. I can't stomach it."
Illinois was 12 of 16 at the line and shot 41 percent from the field to the Spartans' 38.5 percent. Michigan State didn't reach 40 percent in any category.
The score was tied at 39 when two free throws from Nunn, a putback by Egwu and a 3-pointer by Ahmad Starks gave the Illini a seven-point lead.
But after a Starks steal, Trice came from behind to block a layup, setting up Branden Dawson's basket at the other end. That switched the momentum, and two 3-pointers from Valentine helped cut the deficit to 49-47.
When Valentine missed an open 15-footer to tie and Dawson failed on a tip-in, Illinois went up 51-47 on a tougher tip try by Austin Colbert. Dawson's tip-in made it 51-49. But he turned the ball over on a pass in traffic, setting up two Jaylon Tate free throws for a four-point lead with 1:59 left.
Trice answered with a 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining before Nunn scored on a drive to make it 55-52. But when Trice was hit by Tate after making the front end of a one-and-one, Michigan State got three more foul shots with 33 seconds left and made just one of them.
"The ball went through the hoop, and the ball became dead," referee Terry Wymer said. "No. 1 (Tate) backed into him in an unnecessary manner and made contact with him at that point. That's why we called a dead-ball contact technical foul."
That second free throw by Bryn Forbes was the last point the Spartans would score. Hill took over from there, going 4 of 4 at the stripe in the last 15 seconds after no-chance shots by Valentine and Trice.
"It's really big to come to Michigan State and beat a team that plays so hard," Egwu said after leading that effort at both ends. "To come into their building and play this way is the best part of it."
Illinois: The Illini were without top-scorer Rayvonte Rice for the ninth straight game, six with a fractured left hand and three for an indefinite team suspension. Aaron Cosby also sat for the third straight game at Groce's discretion.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo remained fourth in career Big Ten victories with 227 in 19 1/2 seasons, one shy of the total of Purdue's Ward "Piggy" Lambert. Bob Knight had 353 wins in 29 years at Indiana, and Gene Keady had 265 in 25 years with the Boilermakers.
Branden Dawson, the Big Ten leading rebounder at 10.1 per game coming in -- failed to reach double-figure boards for just the second time in 10 games after finishing with six.
Illinois hosts Michigan Thursday night.
Michigan State visits Northwestern Tuesday night.