| The Detroit News
East Lansing – The road is a brutal one, but Michigan State certainly is off to a good start.
Desperate to string some victories together in a brutal stretch of six games in 13 days against some of the best teams in the country, Michigan State had its second straight impressive performance on Tuesday night, knocking off No. 5 Illinois, 81-72, at the Breslin Center.
Aaron Henry scored 20 to lead Michigan State (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten), which gets a quick break before hosting No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday in its quest to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd straight season.
Joshua Langford also had a huge night for the Spartans, scoring 15 points and grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. Rocket Watts 13 points and five assists while Joey Hauser added 13 points, including a late 3-pointer to help push back a late Illinois rally.
Trent Frazier scored 22 to lead Illinois (16-6, 12-4), while Ayo Dosunmu scored 17, Kofi Cockburn added 13 and Andre Curbelo chipped in 12 for the Fighting Illini.
Michigan State’s smaller lineup of Henry, Watts, Langford and Gabe Brown didn’t take long to get rolling in the first half as Illinois scored the first five points but the Spartans went on a 10-0 run to seize control of the game. The ball started moving and the shots started falling before back-to-back 3-pointers from Langford and Brown gave Michigan State a 20-14 lead with 9:30 left in the half.
While the offense was in rhythm, the defense was doing its best to clamp down the Fighting Illini. Illinois shot just 24% in the first half as Michigan State extended its lead to 28-18 on a Watts jumper with seven minutes left in the half.
Frazier hit a couple of 3-pointers to get Illinois within six, but Hauser hit a three and then split two free throws to close the scoring, giving the Spartans a 36-26 lead at halftime.
The Spartans kept the heat on to open the second half, scoring seven in a row at one point to take a 47-31 lead with just less than 15 minutes to play, forcing an Illinois timeout with 14:45 to play.
Michigan State continued to push the pace from there, extending the lead to 54-36 on a put-back from Julius Marble with 11:42 to play, proving the Spartans with their biggest lead of the game at that point. The lead grew to 19 less than a minute later after a Marble jumper, but the Illini started chipping away, scoring the next six points to pull within 13 of the Spartans, a margin that stood with 7:51 to play as Michigan State held a 62-49 lead.
Illinois got within 10 at 66-56 with 5:19 to play and got within nine after Dosunmu got to the line four times in one possession but made only one free throw with four minutes left.
But Hauser’s deep 3-pointer with just less than three minutes to play effectively put the game away as Michigan State salted it away at the free-throw line.
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