It wasn't pretty, but at the end of the night, No. 7 Michigan State managed to pull out a close game against Illinois, 51-41 on Wednesday night.
In a game where the Spartans (19-2, 7-1) set the record for best 21-game start in school history, it was bittersweet for coach Tom Izzo.
"I'm excited about a win but I'm disappointed about the way we played," said Izzo. "Illinois deserves some credit, I thought they took it to us."
The Fighting Illini (10-12, 2-7) came into East Lansing and brought some tight defense, forcing MSU to fight for every basket.
"That's Big Ten basketball at its finest," said Travis Walton. "Fighting for the basket, nothing comes easy, jumping on the ground, getting elbowed, getting hit with illegal screens."
Despite the sloppy win, Izzo pointed to this game being an NCAA tournament-type game, where many times the games are grind-out, scrappy wins.
"That was the toughest game we've played and the players expected that," said Izzo. "They definitely played as hard or harder than any team we've played, and that includes UCLA."
Despite the 10-11 record coming in, Bruce Weber's Illini teams are known for their tight defense and physicality, and MSU knew they were in for a defensive battle.
"If you're tough and you like to play a grind it game, you gotta love to play Illinois," said Walton. "They are going to make you play; they are going to make the game ugly.
The defense was there from the opening tip, with MSU holding the Illini to three points until the 8:44 mark of the first half.
But after starting 1-for-12 from the field, Illinois stormed back with a 15-0 run on their way to a low-scoring 24-20 halftime lead.
The Spartans had a sloppy first half of play, having more turnovers (10) than baskets (8). Drew Neitzel also struggled from the field, going 1-for-6 and uncharacteristically missing some open shots.
"Chester (Frazier) did a good job on (Drew) Neitzel, especially in the first half," said Weber. "He got a little bit going in the second half."
Weber noted that the first five minutes of the second half were critical in his team getting the crowd out of it, but Neitzel prevented that, as he took over, going on a nine-point spree early to reclaim the lead at 31-26.
"He (Neitzel) started coming off screens harder and he looked for his shot a little more in the second half," said Izzo. "But he got tired, we did a heck of a job defensively, our guards ran all over the place."
Neitzel scored 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half.
Illinois briefly took a 32-31 second half lead but Goran Suton's layup sparked a 7-0 run to put MSU on top for good. Suton finished with a double-double, scoring ten points and grabbing ten rebounds.
Free-throw shooting made a big difference throughout the game but especially late.
The Illini were just 7-for-19 from the line while the Spartans were 19-for-25.
"The free-throws are so tough for us, it's been the same script for us all year," said Weber.
"But we hung in there; we made them turn it over. We thought ball pressure would hurt them and disrupt them a little," added Weber.
"It was a classic Big Ten battle," said Drew Naymick. "It was a game of little tweaks and counters and it was a defensive battle and a defensive win for us."
"Coach Weber does a great job of scouting and preparing his guys," said Drew Naymick. "It was a classic Big Ten battle. It was a game of little tweaks and counters and it was a defensive battle and a defensive win for us."
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