LIVE! Michigan State at State Farm Center

Final: Michigan State 69, Illinois 53

The No. 24 Spartans handed the Illini their fourth straight loss, 69-53, Thursday night at State Farm Center.

Illinois fell behind by as many as 23 points in the second half before the Illini mounted a furious comeback to cut the deficit to single digits. Illinois' 14-0 run, capped by a three-point play by Alexis Smith, pulled the hosts within 59-50 with 5:08 left.

But after again drawing with nine at 61-52, Illinois saw the Spartans reel of seven straight puts to pull out of reach.

Ivory Crawford led Illinois 9-14, 2-8 Big Ten) with 20 points. Becca Mills and Tori Jankoska each scored 22 for the Spartans (16-7, 8-1 Big Ten),

Check back later for a complete game story.

*****

8:47 left in second half: Michigan State 59, Illinois 40

-- The Spartans have stayed in command, building their lead to as many as 23 points at 59-36 with 11 minutes left.

-- Junior guard Ivory Crawford is doing what she can for the Illini. She has six more points in this half to increase her game total to 16. Of the Illini group that started both halves, she's the only regular.

-- Jankoska continues to impress. She has 12 points in this half and 20 for the game. Her career high is 25, which she's reached twice.

-- Jankoska is just one more reminder about the bounty of terrific freshmen in Big Ten women's basketball this season. Coach's won't need to dig deep to fill out the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. If anything, some really worthy picks likely won't make it.

****

15:51 left in second half: Michigan State 51, Illinois 33

Hero: Tori Jankoska

The Spartans freshman guard is feeling it from outside. She's hit two three-pointers and scored eight of MSU's first 10 points in this half.

Goat: Illini perimeter defense.

See Hero.

What I'm thinking:

-- Not sure what the actual attendance is, but a sparse crowd is doing what it can to generate noise. Problem is, Illini not giving them much reason to get excited

-- Bollant started the same starting lineup in this half that he opened the game with. He isn't backing away from trying to make a point to his team.

-- Nia Oden has stepped up offensively in this half. She has five of Illinois' nine points since halftime.

****

Halftime: Michigan State 41, Illinois 24

Hero: Becca Mills

The Illini have no defensive answer for the 6-foot-3 Spartans center, who is having a perfect shooting night. Mills is 5 of 5 from the field, 4 of 4 from the line and has scored a game-high 14 points.

Goat: Illini defense

Matt Bollant wanted to make a point about this phase of his team's play by shaking up the lineup, but MSU is on pace for an 80-point-plus game. Spartans are shooting a torrid 69.6 percent (16 of 23).

What I'm thinking:

-- Interested in hearing what Bollant has to say after the game. I suspect he'll say he was pleased with the energy of his freshman-heavy starting lineup but not the execution.

-- The bigger question is this: Where does the UI coach go from here? Do Moore and Smith return to the lineup for future games and, thus, give Illini a better chance at a victory? Does he stick with tonight's group? Or does he mix it up? Perhaps Gleason has played well enough on offense to continue to keep her place in the starting 5? 

-- Losing center Jacqui Grant (mono) is a tough blow for the Illini. When healthy, she was a consistent point-producer. And though she needs to improve defensively, her absence leaves Sarah Livingston as the only legitimate post defender available. Mills would have been a tough matchup anyway, but Grant surely would have helped some.

-- Illini might want to stop flinging up three-point attempts. They're 1 for 10.

****

6:01 left in first half: Michigan State 28, Illinois 21

-- Impressive comeback by the Illini, who twice trailed by as many as 11 points, the last time at 24-13. Illinois then went on an 8-0 run with Alexis Smith, Taylor Gleason, Amber Moore and Ivory Crawford each hitting a basket.

With starting center Jacqui Moore sidelined by mono, the Illini are really hurting whenever replacement Sarah Livingston leaves the game. MSU immediately attacked inside when she left the court. Bollant was forced to get her back in. Illini really have no other option of size in post defense other than Livingston.

-- Michigan State is without guard Kiana Johnson, who has been suspended for violating team rules. She had started 16 games this season and played in 19.

****

11:58 left in first half: Michigan State 22,, Illinois 11

Hero: Matt Bollant

To the Illini head coach for making the bold move with his badly slumping team of starting three freshmen. That should send a message.

Goat: Weather.

As it did last night for the Illini men's basketball game, the snowstorm and bad travel conditions have kept tonight's crowd predictably small.

What I'm thinking:

-- Bollant had said Tuesday that he likely would shake up the lineup, and he delivered. Freshmen Sarah Livingston, Taylor Gleason and walk-on Ashley McConnell made the first starts of their careers. Regulars who opened on the bench were Amber Moore, Alexis Smith and Sarah Hartwell.

-- It looked like the revised Illini lineup was overwhelmed at the beginning of the game, falling behind 11-2. But the group, with Ivory Crawford lending a steadying hand, fought back. They got it down to 13-9 before the Spartans surged.

-- Gleason has looked good on offense, scoring the Illini's first four points.

-- Big gap in shooting; MSU is hitting 75 percent of its shots (9 of 12), Illinois 28.6 percent (4 of 14).

****

Welcome to our live report from State Farm Center for tonight’s Big Ten women’s basketball game between the Illini and No. 24 Michigan State.

It’s been a rough New Year for Illinois (9-13, 2-7 Big Ten), which is 2-7 since the calendar flipped to 2014. The Illini have lost three in a row, and a defeat tonight would match the team’s longest losing streak of the season. The slide has dropped coach Matt Bollant’s team into sole possession of last place in the conference.

Meanwhile, Michigan State (15-7, 7-2 Big Ten) enters in second place and on the rise. The Spartans have won three straight, most recently an impressive 89-73 victory against then-No. 19 Purdue. Five MSU players scored in double figures in that game, and MSU shot 50 percent from the field.

Although the Illini have won merely two Big Ten games, one was against Michigan State. The only other conference team to defeat the Spartans is Big Ten leader Penn State.

Illinois achieved the feat with a game-ending 15-5 run en route to a 61-51 victory at Michigan State. Rebounding has been a season-long issue for the Illini, but on that night against a good rebounding team, Illinois was virtually the Spartans’ equal on the boards. MSU ended up barely winning that battle 41-37.

The bad news for the Illini tonight is that Jacqui Grant, who produced a double-double in that game, will not be in uniform. Bollant learned Tuesday that Grant has been diagnosed with mononucleosis. The UI coach said he expects Grant to be unavailable for one to two weeks. Thus, an already struggling Illini team could be without its leading rebounding and No. 3 scorer for the next four or more games.

Even before Bollant received word on Grant’s medical status, the Illini coach was strongly considering shaking up his lineup, or at least redistributing minutes on the court. During its current three-game slump, Illinois’ defense has been as porous as at any time this season. The Illini have allowed 80, 90 and 77 points during this span and lost by margins of 12, 26 and 19 points.

Bollant said Tuesday that only those players who play sound defense and “with energy” can expect significant playing time.

One challenge the Illini defense faces tonight is the balance Michigan State brings on the attack. Six players are averaging between 13.8 and 8.4 points per game. In the Spartans’ last five games, four differt players have led the team in scoring.

Like the Illini with Grant, Michigan State has one of the Big Ten’s many high-impact freshmen in Aerial Powers, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Powers did not fare well in the teams’ first meeting, scoring two points and committing three turnovers in 19 minutes. However, the redshirt freshman guard notched her sixth double-double of the season (19 points and 11 rebounds) during Sunday’s victory against Purdue.

Finally, there’s this hard-to-explain storyline: The Illini have yet to win a Big Ten home game this season (0-5) and the Spartans have yet to lose on the Big Ten road (4-0). It’s just the second time in program history that MSU has won its first four conference road games.

We’ll update this report periodically during tonight’ game so be sure to check back.
 

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