CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes in the grand scheme of things, even when you try and put forth your best effort, the results are still less than satisfactory.
That statement couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Illinois Fighting Illini saw their losing streak reach four games with a 78-62 defeat at the hands of the No. 4 ranked Michigan State Spartans on Saturday evening at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
The Illini played neck and neck with the Spartans for a good portion of the first half, but a late Michigan State run gave them a 35-25 lead into the halftime locker room.
Tracy Abrams led the Illini in scoring with 15 points, while Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey each scored 12 for Illinois, who falls to 13-6 overall and drops to 2-4 in Big Ten play with the loss. Ekey was able to come out of a small slump, as the transfer from Illinois State scored in double figures for the first time in the last four games.
“It was good to see the ball go in tonight, and I’m not sure it exactly was a slump I was in,” Ekey said.
Nnanna Egwu, held scoreless for the second consecutive game, continues to slide on both sides of the floor, and may have opened the door for freshman Maverick Morgan to see more playing time as a result of his struggles.
“Mav (Morgan) and Kendrick (Nunn) both had career highs in minutes tonight, and they have earned that playing time,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Morgan ended up playing 16 minutes, while Nunn charted 29.
“They have been playing really good as of late, and it showed on the court tonight,” Ekey said about the freshmen.
Regarding the veterans, namely Joseph Bertrand and Egwu, Groce stated that “they simply need to play better”. Groce added that “players play players, and right now, the freshmen are doing the job, and therefore, are starting to see more minutes as a result.
Abrams, who obviously was disappointed with the overall result, knows that it is a long season, and they still have time to rebound from this losing streak.
“As Coach Groce tells us, this is an 18 round fight, and we are through 6 rounds now, so there is still time to turn this around,” Abrams said.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was pleased with his team’s effort, and claims that rebounding is the key to their success.
“The best start in school history is something to celebrate, but I want this team to leave with a Final Four appearance or a national championship,” Izzo said. “We rebounded very well, and got after it on defense, which has helped us during this stretch.”
Izzo, in his 19th season at the helm in East Lansing, won his 215th game as Spartan bench boss, good for fourth all-time in conference history, passing former Illini coach Lou Henson.
“I talked to Lou at halftime, and I need to call Bobby (Knight) to let him know that his record is safe,” Izzo said.
Groce, who was clamoring on the officials all evening long for what he called illegal ball screens set by the Spartans, finally was assessed a technical foul when he took his sport coat off and flung it behind him into the Illinois bench.
Michigan State’s Gary Harris went to the other end and hit one of two free throws, and the Illini, who got as close as six points down the stretch, couldn’t get over the hump after that.
Michigan State, who improves to 17-1 overall and remains perfect atop the Big 10 at 6-0 with the win, was led in scoring by Harris, who had a game-high 23 points. Keith Appling and Denzel Valentine added 15 apiece for the Spartans, who won the battle on the boards by a 38-25 margin.
“Obviously we got beat by a good team tonight, and any time you give up 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc, you put yourself in a position to not do very well,” Groce said.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Illini, as they now head on the road for the next two games, beginning with a contest against No. 9 Ohio State Thursday evening at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio (6:00 p.m. CT, ESPN or ESPN2). The Buckeyes are 15-3 overall, but have lost their last three games following a 15-0 start.
The game can be heard locally on WDAN AM 1490 and WDNL 102.1, as well as statewide on the Illini Radio Network.
Jim Cotter is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News, and can be reached for comment at email@example.com