EAST LANSING — Malik Hall felt it slipping away again.
The Michigan State basketball forward missed a front-end free throw Saturday with 3:18 to play against Illinois, a reminder of his struggles at the foul line four days earlier in Minneapolis.
Seconds later, Hall collided with A.J. Hoggard going for a defensive rebound and the Illini recovered. Then after star Terrence Shannon Jr. drove around Hall and got fouled, the Spartans’ fifth-year senior tilted his head back and let out a few choice words of self-frustration.
Whatever words Hall uttered to himself cursed Illinois.
Hall scored finished through contact for a pair of three-point plays to give MSU the lead for good, and Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard made sure the Spartans finished a much-needed marquee victory, knocking off the 12th-ranked Illini, 88-80, at Breslin Center.
MSU (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) has won 11 of 15, and recovered from blowing a nine-point, second-half lead Tuesday in a bitter 59-56 loss at Minnesota.
Hoggard led MSU with 23 points and went 12-for-13 at the free-throw line, including five in the last 1:39. The first two came after a steal and breakaway layup by Walker helped kickstart the Spartans’ late run.
“That’s what coach has been talking about, winning plays, that we’re gonna get some big stops,” said Walker who had 19 points — his 35th straight game scoring in double figures — and added two of MSU’s six steals. “So that was big for us to step up today. … We’re not trying to drop two in a row. We definitely thought we let one go at Minnesota, so it’s just trying to be better.”
And it was a critical victory for MSU’s push to grow coach Tom Izzo’s record streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 26 straight.
“In my mind, we’re going to the NCAA tournament every year. I’m not gonna be with a person that doesn’t go, I don’t want to be that person,” Hall said. “This was definitely an important win. We needed another big one, I feel like, for our résumé just to give us a little more like oomph, I guess.”
Jaden Akins added 10 points and a team-high six rebounds as MSU had a 33-all draw on the boards with the Illini, one of the nation’s top rebounding teams. The game also featured 15 ties and 16 lead changes, with the Spartans outscoring Illinois 23-9 on the break and 38-22 in the paint.
“It did seem like a March game. And if it is, I love it,” Izzo said. “We won the game. And that’s when you want to win, is in March. I thought all of them rose up. And I thought in the huddles, you could just tell. I don’t know why people can’t stay focused on those things, but sometimes we don’t.”
Illinois (17-6, 8-4) finished 11-for-30 from 3-point range (36.7%) but missed its final five over the final 6:47. Shannon led all scorers with 28 points on 7-for-19 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. Coleman Hawkins had 14 points, and Marcus Domask scored 12 for Illinois.
For the game, MSU went 25-for-34 at the free-throw line, and Hall was 7-for-9 in the second half. Illinois finished 17-for-20. In the Illini’s 71-68 win over the Spartans on Jan. 11, they went 18-for-22 on free throws but limited Izzo’s team to just 5-of-7 at the line by fouling just 10 times to the 24 they were whistled for Sunday.
“It’s almost a flip of the game in Champaign, when we got to the line and were way more aggressive. … Give them all the credit, they were obviously the aggressor,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You’re a passive, soft team when you’re fouling. And obviously we fouled a lot today, so we were pretty passive.”
MSU returns to the road Wednesday at Penn State (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Game of runs
Big runs and big plays, key rebounds and key calls. All that roiled together for a first half in which neither team could shake the other.
The Spartans struggled with 3-point defense early, as the Illini hit four of their first six on open looks. Hawkins’ 3 just past the midpoint of the half extended the lead to seven, but MSU’s defense clamped down from there and did not allow another 3-pointer the rest of the half.
A Hoggard steal and layup after a Walker free throw, followed by a driving layup by Akins, forced Underwood to call timeout with 7:52 to go before half and the Spartans within two.
Shannon, who had 16 points in the first 20 minutes, answered out of the timeout with three straight buckets to give Illinois its biggest lead of the first half at 31-23 with 6:29 to go.
That’s when MSU’s offense took flight, with a pair of Hoggard free throws sparking a 21-10 counterpunch over the final 6:15. The Spartans scored 10 straight, the first coming on a Jaxon Kohler putback after Hoggard missed a 3-pointer. The senior point guard started distributing after that, setting up Hall for a 3-pointer on MSU’s next possession. Hall cleaned up a missed Walker layup attempt, then Hoggard flicked a pass to Akins for a 3.
That bucket put the Spartans up 44-39 and whipped Breslin into a frenzy. But Akins got caught chirping at Illinois’ bench and picked up a technical foul, which whipped Izzo into a fury and sent him onto the court to lash out at Akins before Hoggard held him back. Shannon hit the ensuing free throws, but MSU took a 44-41 lead into the locker room.
The Spartans outrebounded the Illini by two and turned their three offensive rebounds into six points, limiting Illinois to two second-chance points on four offensive rebounds. Kohler had three rebounds at half, turning his two on the offensive glass into buckets.
Hall made all four of his first-half shots and scored 11 points by half, with the Spartans hitting 57.7% overall and going 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Hoggard added 10 points by making all six of his free throws and handed out three assists.
“We fought. We kept our mental capacity. We stayed positive,” said Hoggard, who also had five assists. “All we know is that basketball is a game of runs, and we knew how talented that team was and that they were going to make runs. So we just had to keep ourselves level-headed and just bounce back and fight and make our runs.”
It was more of the same after half.
Domask’s 3-pointer out of halftime was the first of seven ties and four lead changes over the first 8:53 of the half.
The fifth lead change came on another 3-pointer for Illinois, this one by Luke Goode with 10:40 to play. That sparked a 12-2 run, with Domask dropping the Illini’s final 3-ball to make it 72-64 with 7:37 to play.
MSU responded once again.
Walker hit a pair of free throws, and Hoggard put together a sizzling sequence.
First, he took his time before launching a nothing-but-net 3-pointer from the corner off a Walker feed in transition. Then after an Illini turnover, Hoggard got the ball again on the right side of the floor and attacked off the dribble. His hesitation ball fake got Hawkins airborne, and Hoggard finished through contact and hit the free throw. That pulled MSU to a 72-72 deadlock with 4:10 remaining, the eighth tie of the second half.
The Spartans took the lead on the big sequence from Hall, with two Hawkins free throws giving Illinois a brief lead again with 2:29 to play. But Hall’s second three-point play provided the final lead change.
“We let him catch it — 90% of the game, we didn’t let him catch it,” Underwood said of Hall’s key buckets. “We just sat behind him. I mean, they have a 5-man (center), but they don’t have a 5-man that can shoot. Coleman was sitting right behind him, right there to cover it up, and we just let him catch it. And then we committed fouls on top of it, which were not very smart.”
Those plays, and the ensuing steals by Walker and Hoggard, delivered the signature victory Izzo was seeking. It joins the blowout of No. 13 Baylor on Dec. 6 as the Spartans’ only wins over ranked opponents this season.
“Honestly, it felt like when we played them two years ago in here and we didn’t get the job done,” said Walker, referencing a 79-74 home loss to Illinois on Feb. 19, 2022. “If felt just like that — big plays after big plays, back and forth. But we finally put some plays and some stops, together to close out a game.”
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