EAST LANSING, Mich. — After playing a near-perfect first half Thursday, Illinois knew Michigan State would respond with a wave of energy to start the second half.
What Illinois didn’t know was that a tsunami was coming.
The 13th-ranked Spartans opened the second half with a whirlwind of defense and play-making by point guard Keith Appling, going on a 14-0 run that paved the way to an 80-75 victory at the Breslin Center.
The Spartans shot an eye-popping 87.5 percent in the second half (14-of-16) and made 23 of 32 second-half free throws.
But despite giving away the entire 10-point halftime edge in less than four minutes, Illinois hung close, and when D.J. Richardson nailed a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds to go, Michigan State’s lead was 78-75. On the ensuing in-bounds pass, the Illini nearly created a turnover that could have given them a final game-tying shot.
But, alas, another foul was called, causing Illini point guard Tracy Abrams to repeatedly pound his fist on the floor in frustration.
Appling led Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) with 24 points and proved to be nearly impossible to guard in the second half.
“The first four minutes of the second half really changed the game,” Abrams said. “We fought back after that, but we can’t put ourselves in that position.”
His coach, John Groce, agreed. And he warned his team what Michigan State would try to do.
“To Michigan State’s credit, they amped it up,” Groce said. “I knew they were gong to do that. The last thing I said before breaking our huddle to start the second half was, ‘They are going to come at you hard in the second half. They’re going to turn up the heat. Be ball-strong.’
“Obviously we were not able to do that.”
After committing just one turnover in the first half, Illinois turned it over three times in the first three minutes of the second half.
Paul had the ball taken from him on the opening second-half possession, resulting in Denzel Valentine’s basket that ignited the crowd and started the Michigan State comeback.
After a missed shot, Appling scored and Groce quickly called timeout.
Again Paul turned the ball over and shortly thereafter Appling flipped an alley-oop pass to Adreian Payne, who dunked it to cut Illinois lead to 37-33.
Following a turnover by Abrams, Appling scored on a drive, was fouled, and converted the free throw to narrow Illinois’ lead to a single point.
And when Gary Harris drilled a 3-pointer out of the corner, Michigan State was on top, 39-37.
“I thought the game was won in the first four or five minutes of the second half,” Groce said. “They came out and punched us in the mouth. I didn’t like our response. We didn’t take care of the ball and they got us on the glass. They were tougher than us in that stretch and it was the difference in the game, period.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who angrily challenged his team to ratchet up the defense in the second half, said the Spartans had been badly outplayed in the opening half.
“They worked harder than us,” Izzo said. “They dominated us.”
Michigan State overcame two injuries. Harris, No. 2 on the team in scoring, left early in the second half after suffering a back injury. He scored 14 points but missed much of the second half.
Backup point guard Travis Trice was clunked in the head with a knee and did not return.
Izzo said he hadn’t received a final medical report, but indicated that Trice might be out for some time.
There were bright spots for the Illini, including 11 points from Myke Henry in his best game of the season.
Abrams finished with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds. And D.J. Richardson scored 14 points.
But defensively, Illinois was unable to cope with Appling and Groce had no complaints about the 26 personal fouls called on his team.
“Those were three high-level officials out there who are really good,” Groce said. “We have to play harder and defend without fouling. Those were fouls.”
Illinois tried different strategies on Appling, the 6-foot-1 point guard. Abrams and Richardson took turns fouling him and when Groce switched the 6-11 Nnanna Egwu onto Appling, hoping the added height might cause him troubles, Appling beat Egwu off the dribble and made a whirling basket.
And when Illinois did manage to put up a road block on Appling’s drives, the defensive attention left another Spartan open. Several times Appling flipped perfectly placed alley-oop passes that were hammered home for dunks.
Now Illinois faces a 2:30 p.m., Super Bowl Sunday showdown against Wisconsin at Assembly Hall. Although the Badgers are unranked, they already own a 23-point victory over Illinois on Jan. 12 in Madison and can boast a victory at Indiana, currently the nation’s third-ranked team.