The topic was free throw shooting. And Illinois' performance from the line in their 57-50 victory over Michigan State on Tuesday night could best be described as "woeful". The Illini hit only 16 of 31 attempts, and Pruitt went 5-14 from the line, missing 8 in the second half alone, including 5 misses after Michigan State (17-6, 4-4) had cut an 11 point Illinois (16-8, 4-5) halftime lead down to 4 points with les than 5 minutes left in the game.
"If we could just make free throws we could have won by 10-12 points," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "If you're not at home today, it's (free throw shooting) probably a decision maker."
The poor effort from the charity stripe diverted attention from a strong Illinois defensive effort overall. MSU shot only 37% from the field, and 16.7% from behind the 3-point line, and the Illini held hot-shooting Drew Neitzel to 10 points and only 2 field goals in 12 attempts. Illinois used a variety of defenders on Neitzel, and made a specific effort to keep Neitzel moving on the defensive end by constantly running his man through picks and from baseline to baseline.
"Our goal was just to rotate people on him," Weber said. "We also tried to run him on the other end. We said whoever he's guarding, just keep running, keep moving. He just never got in a rhythm," said Weber. "We kinda took their leader out of the game. Since we took Drew out, I think we took the heart and soul out of their team," added Pruitt. "Drew took some shots he had to invent," said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. "He was pressing."
The surprise offensive star of the game for Illinois was sophomore point guard Chester Frazier. Frazier, who wasn't even expected to play on Tuesday morning, scored a team and career-high 17 points, including a buzzer-beater to end the first half, and 3 baskets scored deep into the shot clock in the second half. He also added 6 rebounds, tying for the game honors with Warren Carter.
"He told me today that he couldn't play tonight. I had him come in, warm up. He got a little massage, a little magic lotion, and when I asked him before the game, he said he couldn't start, but he could go," said Weber. "At the national anthem, I said ‘Can you play?' He said, ‘Coach, let me watch a little bit, then get going.'"
Frazier has battled foot, groin, and toe injuries most of the season. He added a new injury to his list over the weekend, injuring his left foot in a scramble for a loose ball against Purdue. The new injury was a contributing factor to what was arguably Frazier's worst game of the season against Purdue. But Frazier's willingness to battle back against the latest setback impressed both sidelines.
"Frazier showed me more guts than anyone I've seen since Mateen Cleaves," said Izzo. "I told him after the game at our place that I think he's the toughest player in the league, and I told him that again tonight." "There wasn't anyone that was more down that Chester after the Purdue game," said Weber. "He's very, very, gutsy, and he plays to win. No one's got a bigger heart, he just needs to learn to play smarter."
Illinois built their first half lead on spotty shooting, but tenacious defense, holding Michigan State to 17 points at the break, which was their lowest output in a half for the season. The Illini shot under 40% for the half, and only 22% from the arc, but forced MSU into 15 turnovers in the opening stanza, and held the Spartans to 33% shooting from the field. Illinois took advantage of MSU's miscues, scoring 13 points off turnovers.
"I'm really disappointed in what we did. The effort was OK, but the turnovers…." said Izzo. "We just did some ridiculous things. I learned that we're still immature, which shouldn't surprise me. Our guards went from great guards to not very good guards."
Other than his struggles from the line, Pruitt had another strong game, scoring 15 points and causing matchup problems for both of Michigan State's big men. Goran Suton and Drew Naymick both fouled out of the contest trying to guard Pruitt.
Rich McBride continued his strong play of late, scoring 12 points while taking on the defensive responsibility for Neitzel at the start and the end of the game. McBride was not as sharp from the field as he has been (3-12), but his constant motion helped wear down Neitzel. He also hit 3-4 free throws down the stretch to help maintain the Illini lead.
Warren Carter suffered from early foul trouble and was fairly quiet, scoring only 5 points and grabbing 6 rebounds, but a nifty baseline drive and reverse layup with 2:19 left in the game stretched the Illini lead back to 5 after MSU had gotten the lead down to 3.
Brian Randle returned to action for the Illini after missing two games due to foot injuries. Randle logged 20 minutes of playing time, scoring 4 points and grabbing 3 boards, but 2 first half personal fouls in the first half, and an early 3rd foul in the second half limited his effectiveness.
Illinois' next challenge is to put together back to back conference victories, a feat that they've yet to accomplish this year. With Minnesota on tap on Saturday at Assembly Hall, the Illini have a chance to do so, but nothing can be taken for granted as they scramble to secure an NCAA bid. "I'm just worried about Saturday. We're just going one at a time. We're not a team that can afford to look too far ahead," said Weber. "Minnesota can be last year's Penn State." "We just need to take care of business and not have a letdown. We need to play every team like they're Wisconsin or Ohio State," added Pruitt.