MSU defeated the Fighting Illini 63-57, improving their record to 15-2.
The pattern of this game was a little different than those in which the Spartans have played recently. The MSU coaching staff has been harping on the team for weeks about finishing games strong, and on Saturday the Spartans finished with authority.
"I'm not sure which I like better, playing well for 35 minutes and playing poorly down the stretch or playing poorly for 35 minutes an playing well down the stretch," Coach Tom Izzo said. "That was not a very good basketball game by Michigan State today."
Regardless of the level of talent that the Illini have, they will always play with tenacity and great effort, especially on the defensive end. On an emotional day, in which Spartan legend Morris Peterson's No. 42 was retired, the Illini came out of the locker room playing a level of defense that had Michigan State making a slew of errors.
"A lot had to do with them, but I don't think we were as strong and aggressive with the ball as we should've been, and that led to turnovers," senior Travis Walton said.
In the first half, Michigan State committed 14 turnovers. As a result, the Spartans went into the locker room down 34-27. It was a frustrating first 20 minutes for the Big Ten's first place team, but Izzo recognized what they needed to do in order to come out victorious.
"They did pressure us a lot, but I think it was more of us," guard Kalin Lucas said. "We had to run our plays and be tough, because they were getting tougher in the first half."
Just simply running plays and calming down may seem like easy things to accomplish, but the Illini remained in the Spartans' shirts during the second half as well.
Even when the Spartans did manage to get open looks, they rushed their shots because they thought that there would be an Illinois player contesting the shot. That is the effect that consistent pressure defense can have.
Lucas hit only three of his 13 shots, and Raymar Morgan, who came down with the flu yesterday, didn't make his first field goal until 9:41 was left in the game. Bruce Weber's club kept the Spartans from getting a rhythm all game long.
"He's (Weber) an incredible coach," Izzo said. "There's no better defensive coach in the country."
State persevered. When playing against a defensive team like the Illini and facing a deficit like the Spartans did, patience is a must.
MSU looked at the game one possession at a time, and in those possessions they had to remain patient while running their sets in order to find open looks.
Illinois was not the only team playing stifling defense. Michigan State held Demetri McCamey, the Illini's leading scorer, without a field goal. Along with the defense, the crowd helped will the home team overcome a lot of problems.
"They make you play ugly. They make you turn the ball over. They make you come out of your comfort zone," Walton said. "Everything was in a frenzy. We were mad at ourselves. Coach was mad, and I think our crowd carried us."
BIG TEN BASKETBALL
Every season, a year-long argument ensues about which conference has the best teams top to bottom. Most people would probably say that the Big East is the top conference, but Tom Izzo disagrees.
"I don't care what anybody says about the Big East, it's (Big Ten) the best league in the country when you go top to bottom," Izzo said. "You're playing in the toughest venues in the country if you go top to bottom. Every game is going to be like this."
One very bright spot for Michigan State on Saturday was the play of senior Marquise Gray. Gray brought instant energy off the bench for the Spartans. He finished the game with 11 points and six rebounds in just 15 minutes.
"We've been looking for that spark from ‘Quise.' Jumping at every rebound, trying to block shots," Travis Walton said. "He played 15 minutes and it looked like he played 30. Every time he came in the game he did something positive."
Recently, Izzo had a heart to heart talk with Gray that lasted about an hour. Izzo mentioned that he felt that Gray's struggle were due to a lack of focus and not a lack of talent, but Izzo still knows the Gray has time to accomplish some great things in East Lansing.
"I said I got faith in you if you work, and he said that's all I wanted to hear, and he's going to hear it for the next six weeks," Izzo said. "I can promise you that."
Gray acquired some extra motivation by watching the ceremony prior to the game when fellow Flint native Morris Peterson's name was raised into the rafters. Seeing a Spartan great honored was touching for everyone in attendance, but it really had a profound impact on Gray.
"It was a big night for the program, and also for the team," Gray explained. "It was a big night for me, too, because not only is his jersey up there, Mateen's jersey is up there too. That's two guys that I'm very close with, who I love like brothers."