CHAMPAIGN — There should have been claw marks on the Michigan State Spartans after this one.
From the opening tip, when the Spartans raced to an 8-0 lead, to the final buzzer, Illinois repeatedly was forced to scratch and scrape its way back from sizeable deficits.
In the end, the persistent Illini couldn’t quite catch a bigger and more physical Spartans team that held on for a hard-earned 79-75 Big Ten victory on Sunday at the Assembly Hall.
“They’re learning how to fight and they’re learning how to stay with it against a really good basketball team,” first-year UI coach Matt Bollant said of his team afterward. “It didn’t come out the way we wanted it, but I was proud of the way they fought.”
It was either that or get blown out by a Spartans team that twice led by as many as 13 points in the first half. Yet, with just over a minute left before the break, this game was tied.
“We tried our best to leave it all out on the floor,” Illini guard Adrienne GodBold said.
The pattern continued in the second half. Michigan State twice surged to double-digit leads during the final six minutes. But when Ivory Crawford hit a jumper with 39 seconds left, Illinois was back within four points.
That was as close as the Illini would get.
“You can’t always catch the mouse,” said Crawford, who scored six of Illinois’ final eight points and finished with 16. “I guess we’ve just got to learn how to start the game off and just take it from that. What had us is it started off bad.”
A slow start was far from the only obstacle Illinois (9-7, 2-2) faced. The Spartans — whose frontcourt rotation includes players that stand 6-foot-4, 6-3 and 6-3 — overwhelmed the Illini on the boards and in the paint.
Michigan State (14-2, 2-1) outrebounded Illinois 49-22 and scored more than half of its points (40) in the paint.
An Illini team with only one player as tall as 6-2 has shown it can overcome big height disparities, as it did in recent victories against taller Ohio State and Northwestern teams. Not this time.
“It’s interesting how some games you can step up and play against big, physical teams and do great, and today we didn’t,” Bollant said. “We just physically didn’t have it today.”
It didn’t help that Illinois’ best player in the paint, 6-2 Karisma Penn, was limited by foul trouble to 23 minutes. When the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week fouled out with 6:09 left, she had seven points and four rebounds. The Illini senior entered with averages of 20.0 points and a Big Ten-leading 10.6 rebounds.
Sunday also marked the first time this season that Penn was held to single-digits in points.
“She’s just a kid that we have to have on the floor a lot more than that,” said Bollant, who also was without a proven rebounder in 6-1 reserve forward Kersten Magrum (concussion symptoms). “Credit them, they did a good job guarding her. They’re big and physical inside.”
But what hurt the Illini most, in Bollant’s view, was his team’s defense, particularly in the man to man. Michigan State finished more than 15 points above its scoring average entering the day.
“We scored enough points,” the UI coach said. “For us to shoot 50 percent for the game and lose is disappointing because we didn’t defend the way we’re capable of defending. ... We’ve got to be better defensively if we’re going to beat a team like that.”
Still, the persevering Illini had a shot at pulling this one out. GodBold did what she could, the senior racking up a career-high 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting and grabbing a team-high eight rebounds. But she, too, viewed the end of this one from the bench, having fouled out with 21 seconds left.
“To get the loss, it hurts,” GodBold said. “But it just gives us more heart and more of a mindset to want to work harder.”