Illinois, Michigan State
CHAMPAIGN - Sometimes, it's just about getting hot at the right time. And with the calendar officially flipped to March, the Illini are spitting fire.
Illinois made 11 threes to win their fourth straight game and keep their NCAA hopes alive with a big win in front of a capacity crowd at the State Farm Center.
In his final scheduled home game, Malcolm Hill celebrated Senior Night with 22 points, four rebounds and four assists to lead Illinois (18-12, 8-9 Big Ten) to its fifth win in six games. He passed Brian Cook for No. 4 on the Illinois career scoring list.
Freshman Miles Bridges led Michigan State (18-12, 10-7 Big Ten) with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Alvin Ellis added 15.
MSU out-rebounded Illinois 33-25 and shot 48.1 percent from the field (compared to the Illini's 45.0 percent from the field). But the Spartans, who had won six of their last eight, committed 15 turnovers, off of which the Illini scored 18 points.
Illinois made four threes during an 18-3 run in the first half to take a 33-24 lead. When MSU punched back with a 13-2 run to take a 42-41 lead, Illinois counter-punched with a 15-2 run of its own, highlighted by three 3-pointers, to take a 58-47 lead.
MSU didn't go away though. Alvin Ellis hit three threes to cut the deficit to 62-58, and the game stayed nip and tuck the rest of the way. A Bridges three cut it to 71-70 with under a minute left. On the next Illini possession, Morgan missed a jumper but got his own rebound. He was then blocked but Illinois regained possession and Hill was fouled.
After splitting two free throws, Michigan State called timeout. Bridges missed a runner, which was rebounded by Kipper Nichols, who split a pair of free throws.
Tum Tum Nairn's 25-foot runner went wide left at the buzzer for Illinois to escape with a monstrous win.
What it means
This isn't a fake Illinois rally. This team is defending as well as it has all season. It's shooting as well as it has all season. It's more connected that in it has been all season. It's more confident that it has been all season. It's tougher than it has been all season. It's far better coached than it has been all season. This team believes. They're starting to convert some naysayers into believers. But there still is work to do. Take care of business at Rutgers and win on in the Big Ten Tournament, and Illinois has a great shot of dancing for the first time since 2013.
What went right
Hot hands. The Illini are feeling it from beyond the arc. And it's been a gradual growth. Illinois shot 41.9 percent (44-for-105) during the previous six games. It seems so simple, but when this team hits threes and defends, they win games.
Black seemed to fall in love with the three a bit too much lately, hitting 2 of 8 the last two games. But he has the green light for a reason, and on Wednesday he showed why. Black still needs a go-to post move. But that three-point stroke shows flashes of Nigel Hayes.
Hill put MSU defenders on skates most of the night. Shakin', bakin' and pump-fakin'. The senior is so smooth and ended his career on a high note.
Morgan used his height advantage to use, getting great position and elevating for easy looks at the hoop.
Two students made half-court shots for $10,000. Unlike Louisville, Illinois will pay up.
What went wrong
Closing the half. Illinois had the chance to take a 10-plus point lead into the half, but up 10, Malcolm Hill forced a deep shot with about 12 seconds left. The long rebound allowed Bridges to go coast-to-coast. Alvin Ellis then stole the ball on the inbounds and scored a layup at the buzzer. The huge swing allowed MSU to go into the half with some life.
Illinois missed far too many free throws down the stretch -- causing blood pressure to rise through Illini nation.
Illinois got lost on transition defense.
Officiating. The referees called touch fouls early on Illinois -- and none on Michigan State. The Illini were called for eight team fouls -- including a John Groce technical foul, for which you can't blame him -- before MSU was called for a foul (at the 9:15 mark of the first half). The refs tried to even the numbers, calling five straigh fouls on MSU including three in a 25-second span.
Illinois travels to Rutgers for an 11 a.m. Saturday tipoff for the regular season finale. In its first under head coach Steve Pikiell, Rutgers remains the Big Ten's cellar dweller. The Scarlet Knights (13-17, 2-15 Big Ten) have locked in the No. 14 seed for next weekend's Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C. and are the only team in the Big Ten without at least six conference wins. However, Rutgers has shownsome competitiveness recently, losing at Northwestern by four and at home to Michigan by four. And while Illinois swept Rutgers last year, no one can forget last year's triple overtime classic -- or classically bad -- Illini win. Sophomore point guard Corey Sanders remains Rutgers' best player (12.9 points, 3.3 assists) but a trio of juniors also are capable Big Ten players: Nigel Johnson (11.0 points), Deshawn Freeman (10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds) and Mike Williams (9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds). The Scarlet Knights will play tough, but their offense is by far the worst in the Big Ten and one of the ugliest in the country.