Anyone who thought the turning point to the Illinois basketball season would come against No. 8 Michigan State has the kind of positive attitude coach Bruce Weber wants in his locker room.
Anyone who thought the turning point to the Illinois basketball season would come against No. 8 Michigan State has the kind of positive attitude coach Bruce Weber wants in his locker room. Despite a 15-0 run late in the first half that pushed Illinois to a 20-14 lead, the Illini limped through the second half Wednesday as No. 8 Michigan State rallied for a 51-41 victory at the Breslin Center. It left the Illini in search of a significant victory that could send the season in the opposite direction. The Spartans won their fifth straight game and gave coach Tom Izzo a 53rd birthday present. Michigan State, the highest ranked team in the league, fell far below its scoring average of 75.1 points per game, but the Illini still couldn't keep pace. While Illinois controlled the tempo, the Illini offense had just the one spurt in the first half. The Spartans answered with an 11-2 run to start the second half for a 31-26 lead. If the Illini want to turn this season around, the best chance comes at home. Illinois (10-12 overall, 2-7 in the Big Ten) hosts Purdue on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) before Indiana comes to Assembly Hall on Feb. 7. Illinois hasn't won back-to-back games since late December. The Illinois-Michigan State series has a history of high-level basketball, but this one was more of a battle between two offenses just trying to get jump-started. While Illinois couldn't get it in gear after halftime, one quick spurt gave Michigan State some breathing room. Michigan State (19-2, 7-1) set a school record for wins in the first 21 games to start a season. After holding Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel to 1-for-6 shooting in the first half, the Illini had trouble sticking with him in the second half. The league's preseason player of the year scored 13 of his game-high 15 points after halftime. Staggering from the gate with 1-for-12 shooting, the Illini fell behind 14-5 before a 15-0 run helped them grab a 24-20 halftime lead. The Illini were 8-for-14 during the surprising first-half surge. Freshman guard Demetri McCamey hit two 3-pointers, and Illinois silenced the crowd by grabbing a six-point lead and eventually carrying a 24-20 lead into halftime. Neitzel scored the last nine points in Michigan State's quick flurry to start the second half. The Spartans rallied in the second half on their home court for the second straight season against Illinois. A year ago, Michigan State trailed by 11 before taking a six-point decision. Illinois juggled the lineup, starting Chester Frazier to guard Neitzel and returning senior center Shaun Pruitt to the starting lineup. Frazier's defense slowed Neitzel momentarily, but Illinois never found a reliable scorer. The starting five accounted for 21 points. Reserve freshman center Mike Tisdale and reserve guard Calvin Brock led the Illini with seven points apiece. The Illini shot 30 percent from the field. Randle played with his sprained right thumb wrapped in the first half before removing the wrap in the second half. Michigan State forwards Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton scored 10 points apiece. NOTE: Illinois' game against Michigan State in Assembly Hall has been set for March 6 at 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast by ESPN or ESPN2. The Illini's game at Michigan is set for a 3 p.m. tipoff on Feb. 23 with television coverage provided by the Big Ten Network. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.