After trailing for much of the first half, Michigan State raced back to a three-point halftime lead and kept the Illini at arms length, despite a handful of tight moments in the second half. And against Illinois’ high-flying offense, the Spartans had more than enough to keep pace.
Illinois was paced by the leading scorer on Saturday, as guard Terrence Shannon Jr. poured in 28 for the Illini.
The Spartans move above .500 in league play with the win, now sitting at 7-6 in Big Ten play. And following a disappointing beginning to the season and a lack of signature wins, the NCAA Tournament resume has been lacking for Michigan State. A Top 10 win against Illinois is certain to bolster whatever case Michigan State has to make the NCAA Tournament.
Conversely, while an eight-point road loss against the Spartans isn’t going to tank the season for Illinois, it certainly dings seeding hopes for the Illini, who are in position to battle for a No. 2 seed down the stretch.
Michigan State’s upset win comes after a disappointing loss on the road earlier in the week. The Spartans let a lead melt away late on the road against Minnesota, losing 59-56.
That meltdown coincided with a period that Walker left the game with an injury. He was still slowed by his ailment later in the week at practice.
“Yeah, limited in practice,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “Nah, he wanted to practice. They let him practice a little bit early going through some stuff, and I just kept him out. I think he knows his stuff, he’s going to play enough minutes. So that all falls on me, not him. He wanted to go, I said he’s not going.”
That evening in the Twin Cities might’ve been the nadir of the season for the Spartans, but they responded in perfect fashion, perhaps hitting the high of the regular season.
With around a month left in the season, though, Izzo and the Spartans will certainly hope to find greater heights down the stretch run of play — and deep into March.