EAST LANSING, Mich. — In one basketball game on Thursday at the Breslin Center, fans saw two Illinois basketball teams.
There was the team that blitzed host Michigan State with an 8-0 run to start the game en route to a 10-point halftime lead that had the rowdy Izzone student section nervous.
Then there was the Illinois team that saw its comfortable cushion disappear after a 14-0 Spartans run to start the second half paved the way for an 80-75 win for No. 13 Michigan State. The only nerves for the students decked out in white T-shirts circling the floor was whether their team would reach the 70 points required to collect free tacos at a local fast-food restaurant.
“I thought they came out and punched us in the mouth. I didn’t like our response,” Illinois coach John Groce said of his team’s start to the second half.
“I thought we didn’t take care of the ball; they got us on the glass. I thought they were tougher in that stretch, and that was the difference in the game, period.”
In a lot of ways, the way things played out Thursday has been a lot like Illinois’ season to this point.
Illinois (15-7, 2-6 Big Ten) started like gangbusters: 12-0 with two wins against teams currently ranked in the Top 10.
The way it started the second half looked a lot like the team that has lost seven of the last 10. Any explanations, Coach?
“I wish I could tell you. If I knew that ... you’re talking about in between the ears and in the chest,” Groce said. “We finally found a lineup in the second half that I think competed with some toughness and I thought played well together, but when you play here against a really good Michigan State ballclub on the road, you can’t come out like that.”
The Illini got 16 points from Tracy Abrams (five rebounds, six assists, four steals), 13 from Brandon Paul, 14 from D.J. Richardson and 11 off the bench from Myke Henry.
But the Spartans (18-4, 7-2) shot 87.5 percent (14 for 16) in the second half in moving to 12-0 in front of their raucous fans, led by Keith Appling’s 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Branden Dawson (nine rebounds) added 12 points while Gary Harris and reserve Denzel Valentine had 14 apiece for Michigan State.
“We regrouped in the second half, and I thought our kids came out and played hard,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
With games against Wisconsin, No. 3 Indiana and No. 23 Minnesota on deck, Illinois still has a chance to pick up another NCAA tournament resume-builder before heading into the home stretch of the schedule.
“We’ve still got (10) more games, we’ve just got to figure it out as a team,” Abrams said. “We’ve got a lot more games, and we still need to be positive. Have a great mind-set the rest of the way.”