EAST LANSING, Mich. – Illinois could have used an upset.
Saying they almost had one is subjective.
The Illini, who have lost five of their last six and 7 of 10, made it a one-possession game against No. 13 Michigan State in the final minute. But the Spartans were red-hot in the second half and held on for a 80-75 victory to remain undefeated at the Breslin Center this season.
"Absolutely, [our] backs are against the wall and we have to fight our way out of it," coach John Groce said. "Nobody is going to give you anything. We have to do a better job of defending. We have to do a better job of playing hard without fouling."
Illinois faced a few difficult obstacles: Michigan State's can't-miss offense, Keith Appling's penchant for getting to the rim and the Spartans' ability to make it to the free throw line.
The most crushing hurdle for the Illini, though, was their defense.
The Illini zombie-walked through the first 5 minutes of the second half as the Spartans used a 14-0 run to take their first lead of the game and make the Illini's 37-27 halftime edge seem like history.
Four of Illinois' eight turnovers in the game occurred in that stretch.
"They came out and punched us in the mouth," Groce said. "I didn't like our response. They were tougher in that stretch, and that was the difference in the game."
The Spartans (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) shot 87.5 percent in the second half, making 14 of 16 field goals, and made 23 of 32 free throws after halftime.
"The breakdowns that stood out to me were us fouling," Groce said. "A lot of them were late on the shot clock."
Appling scored 19 of his 24 points after halftime and finished with eight rebounds and seven assists.
"The second half, I guess, we regrouped," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Our kids came out and played hard."
If Illinois (15-7, 2-6) hopes to make the NCAA tournament, it will need to collect some victories quickly. The Illini's game at Michigan State was their second in a stretch of five that includes four ranked opponents.
"This isn't bitty ball," Groce said. "This is the Big Ten. You can't come out in the second half like we did."
Point guard Tracy Abrams paced the Illini with 16 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals.
The Spartans played most of the second half without Gary Harris, who played only 9 minutes after halftime with back spasms, and Travis Trice, who took a knee to the head.
Illinois forward Myke Henry had one of his best games, finishing with a season-high 11 points.
Michigan St. 80, Illinois 75
Star of the game: Keith Appling, MSU, 24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists
Bertrand watch: 6 points on 3-for-7 shooting, 4 rebounds in 26 minutes
Up next: Wisconsin at Illinois, 2:30 p.m. Sunday