MSU Firepower Too Much For Illini To Overcome

The Michigan State Spartans clinched a share of the Big Ten Championship by defeating the Fighting Illini in the Assembly Hall Sunday, 74-66. Illinois fought valiantly on Senior Day, but it was an uphill battle against a powerful group of athletes from the North. Even the best and loudest crowd of the year couldn't get the Illini over the hump.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was saddened by the loss, but he was magnanimous toward good friend Tom Izzo and his Spartans.

"Congratulations to Michigan State players, coaches and staff. They have clinched at least a tie for the title. I think they played about as well on the road as they could."

Izzo was drained of energy afterward. He returned the praise.

"I have to say that's one of the bigger wins I've been involved with. To clinch a share at a place I have so much respect for was unbelieveable. They're a very good team. At times, I thought we played some of our best basketball.

"I've got only a few good friends in the coaching profession, and it's always tough to win on the road. But to win in a place where I have so much respect, how they play, how they act, how they are. The fans today were unbelieveable, it was nuts. So that made it even sweeter to go in and win under that kind of adversity."

The partisan crowd provided outstanding support for the Illini. Weber was grateful to see his team win back the doubters over the course of the season.

"The crowd was tremendous today. You've got to give Michigan State credit. The crowd was against them. We've gotten the crowd back this season, there's no doubt. The kids can feel it. The fans became sold on the team and really enjoyed what our guys are about. I think Chester Frazier is a good example of how the crowd has adjusted to this group, going from mixed emotions to a standing ovation."

Playing his last Illini home game, Frazier also thanked the fans.

"The fans were great today. I want to thank everyone for coming out. Hopefully, they'll continue to come out in years to come."

Michigan State jumped on the Illini early, going up 7-0 before Demetri McCamey deposited one of two free throws to get on the board. From then on, it was an uphill struggle. Everytime the Illini got close, MSU would respond with a run of their own. The Spartans hit two quick buckets in the last 30 seconds of the half to maintain that 7 point lead into the break.

Delvon Roe made two free throws and Travis Walton hit a jumper to give the Spartans an 11 point lead to start the second half. Weber called timeout at that point.

"I thought at the start of the second half we were hanging our heads and had the deer in the headlights (look)," Weber remembered. "I called timeout after two minutes and said, 'Guys, this is your place. Are you gonna let them run over you?' We did start battling and gave ourselves a chance."

Illinois started feeding Mike Tisdale inside, and he made three righty hooks and 7 straight free throws to help get his team back in the game. Tisdale ended with a team high 15 points.

Weber discussed the change in strategy after halftime.

"They're a good defensive team. They're compact, they don't give you easy looks. We finally started getting the ball into Tisdale the second half. We told Mike at halftime, 'Get your fanny down in the block, post up and make them guard you. Shoot your hook.' It got us back in the game."

Frazier and fellow senior Trent Meacham hit big threes to inch closer, and a Jeff Jordan steal and layup gave the Illini their first and only tie of the game at 58-58 at the seven minute mark. Unfortunately, that's the last basket the Illini would make until Frazier buried another three with a half minute remaining. They had three straight chances to take the lead to no avail.

"We fought hard the whole game just to get it back and tie it up at 58, and I didn't make a wide open three and we missed a couple plays," Meacham explained. "We didn't execute on offense and they picked it up on defense. We just couldn't finish it."

MSU's athleticism and physicality were the difference, especially at the end when fewer fouls are called.

"At the end of the game, officials are gonna let it go a little more," Weber explained. "You've got to make hard cuts and finish your cuts, you've got to make plays on contact. Maybe we're just not there yet. Hopefully we can figure it out the next couple weeks."

Weber knew ahead of time how strong the Spartans would be on this day, but he isn't sure he convinced his players of that, especially early in the game.

"They really took it to us early. We spotted them a 7 point lead, and it was 7 at half and 8 at the end. And that was the difference. We could never catch up. We adjusted, but now you're catching up the whole time.

"I joked with the guys that I saw a media show a couple days ago, and Tom (Izzo) didn't look very happy. I know they hadn't played well three in a row against Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa. I knew they'd be ready to play. My biggest fear was Tom Izzo, and he got them ready.

"We have to understand. They're trying to win a title. When he's mean, he's mean, and they're gonna come ready to play. I tried to warn them, but we just didn't react very well."

The big early push gave the Spartans a lead they would never relinquish. But it was their transition offense and ability to crash the boards that Illinois couldn't solve. Speedster Kalin Lucas led the MSU attack with 18 points and 4 assists, and Weber thinks he should win Big 10 Player Of The Year.

"I think Kalin Lucas is the Player Of The Year. They won it. He's the guy with the best record. I think the most valuable player is the guy who helped your team win, and they're gonna win the championship. Tom should be Coach Of The Year."

Tisdale grabbed 5 rebounds to go with his 15 points for the Illini. Mike Davis scored 13 and pulled down 8 rebounds. McCamey and Frazier each added 10 points, although McCamey also suffered 5 of Illinois' 17 turnovers.

Eleven of the 17 turnovers came off steals from aggressive defenders, and a number of those ended up with transition layups at the other end. Overall, MSU outscored Illinois in the paint, 42-16. It was simply too much to overcome.

This isn't the end of the road for the Illini. A road game at Penn State awaits prior to the Big Ten Tournament, and the Illini also expect to participate in the NCAA tournament. Weber knows there are still opportunities available.

"I'm unhappy, I'm angry. But at the same time, I'm proud of the seniors. But it's not over. There's a lot of basketball to go. We lost a game against a very good team. We battled them to the end. We spotted them and still battled. I want to see if we can make some improvement down the stretch."

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