The whole game seemed like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The normal Laws Of The Universe seemed to be operating in reverse. That is, until Michigan State finally got its transition game going late in the game to supplement its decided advantage on the boards.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber described the loss by explaining obvious Illini weaknesses.
"Mental toughness, physical toughness, execution, taking care of the ball down the stretch was our undoing. They had 14 turnovers the first half and get only 4 in the second half. We didn't take care of it, and we gave up way too many layups the second half and way too many second chance points."
This is true. But there was little predictability to the game despite the end result. For instance, Michigan State is a dominant offensive rebounding team, but Illinois led 9-3 in second chance points at the half. As another example, normal scoring leaders Raymar Morgan and Kalin Lucas for the Spartans and Trent Meacham and Demetri McCamey for Illinois all failed to reach double figures.
Guard Meacham had six rebounds, second only to guard Chester Frazier for the Illini. Meacham gave up 6 inches and 40 pounds but held Morgan in check most of the game. Illinois' leading scorers were substitutes Alex Legion and Calvin Brock with 15 and 13 points respectively. Meacham and McCamey made only one of 16 shots between them, including 1 for 14 from the three point line.
Only the end of the game was predictable. Illinois led 34-27 at halftime and pushed its lead to nine early the second stanza before the Spartans began to catch up. Legion's rebound layin and three gave the Illini a 48-42 lead before MSU began to use penetration, transition and offensive rebounding prowess to get point blank shots.
Michigan State's last 7 baskets were all layups or rebound putbacks. Illinois held its own until MSU took its first second half lead at 55-54 on Morgan's two free throws. From that point on, Illinois' body language and confidence changed drastically. They lost their poise and mistakes multiplied.
"We're disappointed, not in losing to Michigan State up here but in how we did it," Weber explained. "We didn't fight, we didn't compete down the stretch. To their credit, they picked up their intensity in the second half."
The Illini have learned to hold onto a lead late in the game, which is a big improvement over last year. But they have not yet learned to fight back when they lose a lead late in the game. They lost their poise in games at Michigan and now at Michigan State after giving up leads. Weber provided some specifics.
"We got stagnant. Demetri wants to do everything with the dribble. Whether it's a ball screen or whatever, they're good defenders. They're not just gonna let you get by. So now he's got to learn to play without the ball and let other people deliver to him. That's where they got the turnovers which led to some transitions."
Illinois was still in the game late, but even when they did things right, the Spartans counterpunched effectively.
"We still had opportunities. Calvin makes a layup, and they go beat us down and get a layup. Alex makes a three, they beat us down and get a 3. That's where you win a game, the momentum swings."
It won't appear on any statistic sheet, but Weber believes the Illini lost the game because they didn't always help each other at key times in the game. He wants his players to understand why they lost.
"They can't keep making excuses. I wrote on the board, 'help a teammate out today.' You get beat, somebody helps you out. We did it for a stretch, but we didn't do it down the stretch or early in the game. It was probably the difference in the game."
Tom Izzo's crew is physically powerful. They attack the boards with extreme gusto, and they play with a swagger. Coach Weber is especially frustrated at how MSU seems able to pull out victories no matter how well Illinos plays against them.
"We've led now the last 5 games against them including four times at halftime and tied the other. And yet we've lost all but one game. To their credit, they will themselves to win. A guy like Marquise Gray gets 11 points and 6 rebounds. That's a big difference maker."
With all the muscle near the basket, Illinois needed a good game from its big man Mike Tisdale. But he got two quick fouls and sat out major portions of the game.
"Tisdale can score in the post, so when he gets into foul trouble, it takes away that weapon. Then he goes back in and is probably out of it mentally, lets a guy go right in for a layup. We've got a young team, and that's part of growing up. Now, we need to see if we can make some progress."
Legion had his best game as an Illini, but Weber wasn't ready to call it a breakout game.
"Kind of, but he still has 4 turnovers. He made some shots the first half that kept us in the game."
The Illini must forget this result quickly as they have two strong teams visiting the Assembly Hall this next week. If they let their wounds fester, they could find themselves with a losing streak.
"Now we have to see where we go," Weber reminds. "We're 15-3, and we just played one of the top teams in the country and led for a good portion of the game. Now we go home to play Ohio State, who we haven't beat in a long time. And then Wisconsin has controlled us. So we've got to stay together, we've got to improve, and we've got to be coachable and keep the right focus."