EAST LANSING, Mich. — Points to remember: Offense is for show; you win with defense. And first-half performances are forgotten in the stretch run.
And so it was in the Breslin Center on Thursday night. The razor-sharp work of 20 wondrous Illini minutes was nullified when Michigan State’s basketball huskies returned from the halftime break.
Down 37-27, Tom Izzo’s 18-4 Spartans broke down the locker room doors and uplifted 14,797 rabid followers by roughing up the visitors, 80-75.
“That was the game ... those early minutes of the second half,” UI coach John Groce said. “I told our players when we came back out that, just so you know, they’re going to turn up the amps.
“Face it, we can’t win when we let Michigan State shoot 88 percent (87.5 on 14 of 16) and take 32 free throws in the second half. I didn’t like the way we came out. They punched us in the mouth and we didn’t respond.”
Operating as though they had doused each other with deer-antler spray during the hiatus, Izzo’s marauders held the up-to-then hot-shooting visitors without a field goal for six minutes while going on a second-half spree of layups, dunks putbacks and free throws.
True to their nature, the Spartans reverted to a football ground attack. They went on a 12-0 spurt and led 45-41 before Joe Bertrand broke the UI field goal drought with a 15-footer at 13:56. As with Sunday’s 74-60 loss to Michigan, when the Wolverines cashed 19 layups, Michigan State broke clear of defenders for 11 point-blank goals in those 20 minutes, explaining the Spartans’ 14-for-16 shooting in a 53-point second half.
When they weren’t making fielders, they were drawing Illini out of position ... 12 personal fouls in the first 12 minutes after the break. Michigan State attempted two free throws in the first half and finished with 34, making 24 to the UI’s 12.
Unofficially, guard Keith Appling (24 points, seven assists) and his rim-rattling teammates had roughly five empty possessions in those riotous 20 minutes. Illinois couldn’t guard them, and it seemed they scored every time down, especially toward the end.
Amazingly, Illinois somehow clung within reach, keeping pace after the six-minute slump, and trailed just 69-67 on Brandon Paul’s trey with 3:00 to go. But Michigan State scored on every possession from there on in. Appling converted nine of the Spartans’ last 15 points.
“We shot good enough,” Groce said. “If you told me beforehand that we’d have eight turnovers (to Michigan State’s 14), shoot 45 percent and score 75, I would have thought that would be enough. Actually, our offensive execution was pretty good.
“But you have to play both ends. And we made four of our turnovers during that Michigan State run. We made too many fouls late in the shot clock, and we lost sight of some guys who came in from the corners for lobs.”
It was a tale of two halves. Groce called for a fast start, having seen the difficulty of falling in arrears at Wisconsin 16-3 and 34-9, and in trailing Northwestern 10-3 and 28-14. He got that wish.
With customary Spartan starter Derrick Nix sitting out nine minutes in a semi-suspension, the hosts committed four turnovers on the first four possessions, and the Illini uncharacteristically jumped out 8-0 on treys by Paul and D.J. Richardson. Groce watched for any change in momentum, and when the frustrated Breslin Center went bonkers on a spectacular lob-dunk by 6-foot-10 jumping jack Adreian Payne (at 12-10), the UI coach called an immediate timeout.
What followed was a 7-for-8 shooting spree featuring six different Illini scorers and a four-point play when Richardson was fouled on a layup, Tyler Griffey recovered his missed free throw, and Nnanna Egwu connected from 20. With the score 28-18, Egwu left with two fouls but the Illini kept rolling toward a 37-27 halftime lead with sub Myke Henry nailing a trey and a rebound layup before the break.
Illinois had seven steals and a single turnover in a terrific 20 minutes, but it was a Jekyll-Hyde performance. When Michigan State sped in for two layups to open the second half, Groce again stopped action.
But Illinois had lost its defensive integrity. The Spartans penetrated time after time, and the Illini couldn’t catch up despite their best output since beating Auburn 81-79 in December.
It isn’t correct to call all layups unguarded because many are challenged, but that’s 36 point-blank goals by Michigan and Michigan State in the last two games. What we’re seeing is how good teams produce plus-.500 field percentages, and nothing will change for the Illini until the defense improves.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.