EAST LANSING, Mich. – Illinois had a shot to be the first team in the nation with four wins over currently ranked teams.
The Fighting Illini, though, couldn’t follow up a strong first half well enough to knock off No. 13 Michigan State on Thursday night.
Keith Appling led a pivotal run early in the second half and finished with 24 points and seven assists to help the Spartans to an 80-75 victory.
The Spartans (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) scored the first 14 points of the second half to take their first lead, following up on a prediction made by Illini coach John Groce.
“The last thing I told those guys before they left the huddle was, ‘Just so you know, they’re going to come at you hard in the second half. They’re going to turn up the heat,’ ” Groce recalled.
The Illini (15-7, 2-6), who were ranked as high as No. 10 this season, lost for the fifth time in six games.
“We’ve got to realize it’s a long season,” said Brandon Paul, who had 13 points. “We’ve got 10 games left and we can’t dwell on the losses we have.”
Illinois has put itself in a tough position for postseason play.
“Absolutely, our backs are against the wall,” Groce said. “Nobody is going to give you anything.”
Illinois started strong and responded to rallies with shots and stops in the first half.
Michigan State played with a lot of energy in the second half. Appling alternated making shots and setting up teammates to score in helping turn a 10-point deficit into a 41-37 lead for the Spartans.
The Spartans started the game without senior center Derrick Nix, finished it without sophomore guard Travis Trice and played much of the second half without freshman guard Gary Harris.
Nix didn’t start because coach Tom Izzo said the captain missed some academic appointments. He entered the game midway through the first half and finished with eight points. Trice, a key guard off the bench, was limited to 11 minutes in the first half because of a blow he took to the head on a shot attempt. Trice missed five games after breaking his nose and getting a concussion in the season-opening loss to Connecticut. Harris, a starter, went to the locker room midway through the second half with back spasms and returned to the bench, but not the game.
Harris had 14 points, fellow freshman Denzel Valentine also scored 14, Braden Dawson had 12 points and nine rebounds and Adreian Payne added eight points, including a dunk off an alley-oop pass with 1:45 left to put the Spartans up 72-67.
Appling’s spinning, scooping layup put them ahead by six points with 45 seconds remaining to essentially seal the victory that kept Michigan State undefeated at home this season. Appling bounced back from a three-point, no-assist, five-foul performance Sunday in a five-point loss at Indiana.
Tracy Abrams scored 16 points for Illinois, D.J. Richardson had 14 and reserve Myke Henry 11.
“Our defense wasn’t good enough,” Groce said. “Offensively, we were good for the most part.”
The Spartans led by eight points midway through the second half, but couldn’t put away a team that has been talented enough to beat some of the top teams in college basketball.
Illinois has beaten No. 7 Gonzaga by 11 points, No. 9 Butler by 17 and No. 11 Ohio State by 19 points. Since beating the Buckeyes on Jan. 5, the Illini lost lopsided games to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan with their only win during the slump coming against 11th-place Nebraska.
Making five 3-pointers and having only one turnover helped the Illini lead 37-27 at halftime.
“They were good,” Izzo said. “They got every loose ball.”
After struggling to keep possession of the ball early in the second half against aggressive defense, Abrams made some 3-pointers to keep Illinois within a possession of tying the game, including one with 5:39 left that made the score 63-60.
Early in the game, the Spartans looked rusty playing after a three-day break and Illinois seemed fired up to play.
Michigan State got off to an awful start with four turnovers on its first four possessions, leading to the Illini taking an 8-0 lead during a first half in which they dominated in every way.
The beginning of the second half, though, ended Illinois’ shot to do something special.
“The game was won in the first 4 to 5 minutes of the second half,” Groce said. “They came out and punched us in the mouth. I didn’t like our response.”
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