Sunday night in Champaign, the Spartans (19-8, 10-4) got even, hitting 17 of 20 from the line on the way to a 60-53 win.
On a rough, physical night, 170-pound guard Travis Trice closed it out, hitting a pair from the line with 39 seconds left to open up a five-point edge that was too much for the Illini (17-10, 7-7) .
"I think we needed this," said Trice, whose team has now won four straight. "It's one of those games where the tougher team was going to win."
A night of bloody lips, sharp elbows and harsh words was fueled, as Izzo put it, by "two teams fighting for their (post season) lives." "That was a war," he said. "I just know it was the most physical game I was a part of for 15 years."
Illinois coach John Groce was disappointed that on a night when his team shot 28.8 percent and let the Spartans run out to an 11-point lead with under five minutes to play, the Illini still had a chance to win late -- if only a shot somewhere had fallen.
The best chance came with 44 seconds left in the game. Illinois had closed the gap to 54-51 and Kendrick Nunn found himself alone with the ball at the top of the 3-point arc. He missed. Trice pulled down the rebound and drew the quick foul, headed to line for the free throws that gave the Spartans room to breathe.
"That last one (Nunn) took, I'd take that one about, oh, every time," Groce said. "He was wide open, he just missed that one." Trice scored 18 points off the bench after starting ice cold.
In his first nine minutes on the floor, he was 0 of 6 shooting, including 0 of 3 from 3-point range. He didn't have a rebound, an assist, a steal or much of anything else. The rest of the way he was 4 of 7 from the field but, more importantly, went to the line 12 times and hit 10 free throws. He also had five rebounds and four assists.
"Travis was the best he's been," Izzo said.
Nunn, meanwhile, finished with a quiet seven points on 2-of-11 shooting. That included 0 of 6 from 3-point range. He had been averaging 14.3 points in Big Ten play.
The game emotionally charged from the opening moments. The teams traded shoves and barbs and Valentine came away from one possession with a bloody lip.
Center Matt Costello fouled out with 1:20 to play, leaving the court with a smirk and a shrug.
Michigan State: With the NCAA Tournament just a few weeks away, Spartan coach Tom Izzo spent much of his postgame news conference lobbying for the Big Ten. "I'm getting a little tired of hearing in the (TV) networks about the Big Ten. That was a tournament game," he said. "Our league is good. ... I don't think the perception's as good as it needs to be or should be."
Illinois: Illinois' roster roller coaster continued Sunday with reserve guard Mike LaTulip missing the game with a concussion. Sunday was also Illinois' first game after guard Aaron Cosby's exit. Cosby left the team last week, Illinois coach John Groce announced. Cosby hadn't played since early January because of an eye injury and a suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules. Rice was suspended with Cosby in late January but has played in the last three Illini games.
WORKING THE REFS
Izzo was quick to point out Valentine's first-half bloody lip to one referee, while Groce loudly protested that he believed official Lamont Simpson was letting too much physical play go. "Lamont, this isn't the NBA!" Groce yelled down the court to Simpson, who turned and gave Groce a quick look.
EVENING THE SERIES
The series between Michigan State and Illinois has been a close one. The teams have won 58 games each. Recently, it's been the visitors who've had the edge. The road team has won the last four meetings, including Illinois' 59-54 win in the last meeting, Feb. 7 at Michigan State.
Michigan State plays Minnesota at home Thursday night.
Illinois travels to Iowa on Wednesday night.