Michigan State still is searching for answers 10 games into the Big Ten season and the free-throw shooting woes only seem to be getting worse.
”It’s extremely frustrating,” Forbes said. “We have a lot of good shooters and good free throw shooters, me, Travis (Trice), Denzel (Valentine).
”To see a miss at crunch time is just really hard.”
Trailing 55-52 with 33.2 seconds left, Trice went to the line to shoot a pair. He made the first one and Illinois guard Jaylon Tate was assessed a technical foul for a shot to Trice’s groin – deemed “excessive” by referee Terry Wymer in a statement.
So with three free throws and the ball coming, the Spartans looking primed to take control of a game they had not led since midway through the first half.
But Trice missed the second free throw, Forbes hit back iron on his first before hitting the second to pull MSU within 55-54. Still, with the ball coming, MSU figured to get a good chance to win the game. Instead, Valentine took a wild shot in the lane and fouled out after the Illini’s Malcolm Hill pulled in the rebound.
”You feel sick to your stomach losing a game like that,” Forbes said. “You get the right call, the technical, with 30 seconds left. We could have had a four-point lead there, but went out with one point.”
The feeling left Forbes taking 60-70 free throws for 15 minutes and coach Tom Izzo unable to compare the loss to any other.
”To me, it’s utterly unacceptable,” Izzo said. “I’ll take full and complete responsibility for it. Probably not the most disappointed I’ve been, but I’m the maddest I’ve been. I can’t stomach that.”
What left Izzo perturbed was not just the missed free throws, but the players missing them. Trice – a 69 percent free-throw shooter – and Matt Costello, who hits 60 percent, each hit just 1 of 3 free-throw attempts.
”We’re not as bad as that and our best shooters at the line should be able to make a damn free throw,” Izzo said.
The Spartans could not explain the woes they have experienced increasingly of late, though it has been an issue for much the year. Valentine – who had a team-high 16 points – said it comes down to mental toughness. Trice said missing can be contagious to a team.
Costello mostly said “I don’t know,” but added he does not think confidence is the issue.
”We all know we are good enough basketball players,” he said. “We just aren’t playing well. It’s frustration more than confidence.”
Another piece to add to the frustration was that MSU opened the game on a 10-2 run.
”We coulda blown that thing out, but we let them get back into the game and let them get confidence,” Valentine said.
The Illini went on a 9-1 run that grew to a 17-4 run and MSU never led again after holding a 14-13 edge with 8:59 left in the first half.
MSU never trailed by more than seven – 46-39 following an Ahmad Starks 3-pointer. Starks then stole the ball from Trice at halfcourt, but Trice stuffed his layup attempt and it looked like a play that could spark MSU.
A Valentine 3 – his fourth of the game – pulled MSU within 49-47 with 6:56 to go, but the Spartans came up empty on three straight possession and missed four shots to take the lead. Dawson made it a two-point game again with a tip-in with 3:01 to go and Trice 3 with 1:21 left made it 53-52, but the Spartans just never got over the hump – a hump that could have been avoided entirely with made free throws.
”We’re just going to have to shoot free throws until people’s hands have blisters on them,” Izzo said. “It’s ridiculous. We’ve addressed it and we’ve brought guys in. Sooner or later, you have to be able to step up and shoot a free throw.”
Now, the Spartans are staring at just seven Big Ten regular-season games remaining and the NCAA Tournament bubble – and not much time to fix things.
“It’s now or never time,” Valentine said. “It was are going to make the tournament, we gotta get some wins – get some quality wins. It was a bad loss at home. I guess we just gotta keep working.”