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 with few answers on offense as Michigan State rallied for a 51-41 victory in a Big Ten Conference game at the Breslin Center. The defeat left the Illini in search of a significant victory that could send the season in the opposite direction as the Illini followed a recent trend -- tough in the first half, weak in the second half. Leading 32-31 with 12 minutes 47 seconds left, Illinois scored only nine points the rest of the way. The Illini were 2-for-10 from the free-throw line in the final 3 minutes. "Obviously, we're not an offensive juggernaut,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Our defense kept us in there. If I could have written the script ahead of time, I wish it wasn't the same story. It's been like that all year for us. "You talk at halftime about playing loose and free, talk about having confidence and composure. The same habits and the same mistakes keep coming up in the second half. I wish I had some kind of cure to change it.'' The Illini lost 11 turnovers and shot 27.3 percent in the second half. While Illinois held Michigan State 24 points under its season average, the Illini still couldn't keep pace. Illinois (10-12 overall, 2-7 in the Big Ten) hosts Purdue on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) before Indiana and guard Eric Gordon comes to town on Feb. 7. "Hopefully, we'll find a way to get some nice wins and momentum down the stretch,'' Weber said. After halftime, the Illini couldn't find a reliable scorer on offense. The shot clock turned into as much of an opponent as the Spartans. "In that run in the first half, we did a good job of moving and screening, and we hit some shots,'' said Illini guard Trent Meacham. "We couldn't find enough options to score. "It happens too much. We have to attack earlier. We have to make cuts to score and make screens to get someone open, not just to move because that's what we're supposed to do. Cut to score. If we're going to drive, drive to score or find someone open.'' Reserves Mike Tisdale and Calvin Brock led the Illini with seven points apiece. The starting five accounted for 21 points. The Spartans (19-2, 7-1) won their fifth straight game, gave coach Tom Izzo a 53rd birthday present and set a school record for most wins in the first 21 games. "You have to be excited by a win, but I was disappointed by the we played played,'' Izzo said. "Illinois deserves from credit for it. I thought they took it to us, and I didn't like the way we responded at all in the first half. "When we got knocked in the mouth, we didn't respond very well. It was a win. It wasn't a really pretty one.'' Spartans senior guard Drew Neitzel, the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, scored nine points in an 11-2 run that gave Michigan State an early 31-26 lead in the second half. He finished with a game-high 15 points, although he was 4-for-12 from the line. "He's going to make some plays,'' said Illini guard Chester Frazier, who guarded Neitzel most of the night. "I tried my best to shut him down.'' 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. Illinois juggled the lineup, starting Frazier to guard Neitzel and returning senior center Shaun Pruitt to the starting lineup. Forward Brian Randle will likely be hampered by a hyper-extended right thumb, an injury suffered in practice Tuesday. The thumb was wrapped in the first half. Frazier's defense slowed Neitzel in the first half, when the Michigan State star was 1-for-6. But the Spartans had other answers. Michigan State forward Goran Suton had 10 points and 10 rebounds while forward Raymar Morgan finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. NOTES: 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. ... The last time Illinois scored fewer points was in 1947. 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. Illinois report card Front court F Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt failed to provide the Illini with scoring options against the Spartans. Meanwhile, the Illini also lost the battle of the boards. Back court C At least Chester Frazier hounded Michigan State star Drew Neitzel into some poor shooting in the first half. But there was little offense from the guards. Bench C Center Mike Tisdale and guard Calvin Brock led the Illini in scoring. But you're not going to get far with your leading scorer finishing with seven points. Overall C While the Illini couldn't put enough offense together in the second half, they did push the nation's No. 8-ranked team. While Illinois didn't get that big win that would offer up some hope for this season, there was some entertainment value in the first half. Games against Purdue and Indiana are up next, likely the last chance for Illinois to build some momentum.