The Spartans vanquish the Illini 74-66 in a 71-possession game. StatSheet box score.
I don’t know what it is about this team, but I just can’t get as tense as I’m used to getting late in close games. Even when Illinois pulled back even seven minutes to go, I had a strange sense of calm about the whole thing. And, sure enough, MSU outscored the Illini 16-8 down the stretch, sparked by a Kalin Lucas layup created out of nothing to regain the lead at 60-58. This team simply knows how to win close games (absent the opponent knocking down HORSE-quality jumpshots,of course).
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning–or at least at the 9-3 lead MSU had when the feed of the game finally hit our TVs. Tom Izzo had this team as well prepared as it possibly could have been. Our Spartans came out using Illinois’ defensive pressure against them by scoring easy baskets off backdoor cuts. And they pushed the tempo to prevent Illinois from even setting up its lockdown halfcourt defense. Plus they were remarkably good at getting the ball into the post. Delvon Roe, Goran Suton, and Raymar Morgan combined to score 32 points on 23 FG attempts.
All those things meant that the players didn’t find itself passing the ball purposelessly around the perimeter, which is the situation that tends to cause our turnover issues. As a result, MSU turned the ball over just 11 times, for a sterling turnover percentage of 15.5%:
That, combined with the expected edge on the glass, led to MSU taking 10 more shots from the field than Illinois did. That’s an advantage we needed, as our poor perimeter shooting continued to be an obstacle (2-8 three-point shooting and very few long 2-point makes).
On the other end of the floor, Illinois made some great plays offensively to stay in the game and eventually tie it back up. Their two Mikes (Davis and Tisdale) were almost impossible to guard, combining to score 28 points on 17 FG attempts. (When was the last time Goran Suton was in foul trouble?) And Chester Frazier played a great all-around game: 10 points, 3 assists, 8 rebounds. In the end, though, they didn’t have a playmaker to match Kalin Lucas. From the point that Jeff Jordan’s layup tied the game with 7:19 to go, Illinois didn’t convert a single field goal until Frazier hit a 3-pointer with 33 seconds to go.
As good as Lucas was (18 points, 4 assists, 1 turnover), I’m going to say Travis Walton was the player of the game: 8 points on 4-5 FG shooting, 5 assists, zero turnovers, 3 steals. That’s a flawless Travis Walton game. He single-handedly created several fast break baskets–the steal followed by the pass downcourt while falling out of bounds being the highlight. And he helped force Demitri McCamey into another subpar performance: 3-9 FG shooting, 3 assists, 5 turnovers. Last, but not least, he knocked down a clutch jumper as the shot clock was winding down to push MSU’s lead to 5 with 1:09 to go and force Illinois into desperation mode.
Idong Ibok’s performance, meanwhile, was exactly what they had in mind when the invented the Unsung Hero award. With Suton had to go to the bench with the game tied, Ibok came in to guard Tisdale. Tisdale had scored 7 points over the previous 5 minutes, as Illinois was consciously trying to get him the ball on nearly every possession. Ibok blocked the next shot he took, and Tisdale didn’t score again. The 5 minutes Ibok played tonight were perhaps the most important minutes he has played (or will play) as a Spartan, and he came up huge.
This was clearly our best performance of the conference season and, arguably, the entire year. Raymar Morgan appears to be very close to being back at full strength: 14 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes. This team may finally have all its pieces in place–and just in the nick of time.
Soak this one in, my friends. Our seven years of famine have ended. A banner with the following words on it will be unfurled from the Breslin Center’s rafters later this year:
Now to make sure that (1) a parenthetical “outright” can be included in the phrase above and (2) a win against every team in the league is included in the official record.
Next up: A trip to Bloomington Tuesday night (7:00, ESPN) to take care of #1.