Jan. 14, 2007
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan State hopes that when the NCAA tournament bids are announced in mid-March, it looks back at Sunday's game as a key victory.
Drew Neitzel scored 19 points and made a key jumper with 25 seconds left to lift the Spartans to a 63-57 victory over Illinois.
Michigan State (15-4, 2-2 Big Ten) earned perhaps its biggest win during a rebuilding season in which it wants to extend an NCAA tournament streak to 10 years after losing three players to the NBA.
"We talked before the game and said that this is a tournament game," Neitzel said. "This is just a huge win for us."
Rich McBride led Illinois with 12 points but, like most of his teammates, played much better in the first half. McBride made three 3-pointers in a span of 1:07 to help the Illini lead by as much as 14, then made only one shot after halftime.
"They just outfought and out-toughed us in the second half," McBride said. "They came out and fought -- we didn't. They had way more energy than we did. They wanted it more.
"Now, we've dug ourselves a hole."
Like Michigan State, the Illini (13-6, 1-3) are also regrouping form key losses and hope a sub-par year still is good enough to extend their seven-year streak of playing in the NCAAs.
Illinois' chances of picking up a quality win looked good when it led 34-23 at halftime.
"Unfortunately, we've had about four games like this," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "It's really frustrating."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said both traditional powers had a lot at stake.
"It's kind of sad that there's so much pressure on us and Illinois after the third game in the conference, but I understand it and I know how it is," Izzo said. "It's going to take a lot of `Ws' to get in the tournament, but there's a lot of basketball left to play."
Warren Carter had 11 points and Shaun Pruitt added 10 for Illinois, which scored the first seven points of the game and later built a 34-20 cushion.
"At halftime, I said, `I'm so tired of not pressuring and not running, so we're going to go after it and put it all out on the floor,'" Izzo said. "And that's what we did.
"That was a gut-check stretch after an embarrassing first half. I thought our guys answered the bell for the first time in a month."
The Spartans came back with aggressive defense that led to 17 points off Illinois' 12 turnovers in the second half. When Michigan State was forced to run its half-court offense, confidence seemed to inspire crisp plays that led open shots and 55-percent shooting.
The Spartans, feeding off their frenzied fans, scored 15 unanswered points to take a 51-39 lead with 7:34 to go.
"The crowd got into it and we just kind of froze like deer in the headlights," Weber said.
The Illini recovered enough to pull within three points twice, but Neitzel made an uncontested shot from the left wing just before the shot clock expired to seal the victory in the final minute.
"I didn't expect (the defender) to be that far off since I wasn't that open all night," Neitzel said. "I didn't get a lot of open looks."
The Spartans improved to 13-0 at the Breslin Center, where they ended a two-game skid against Illinois. Izzo hopes they moved a step closer to their goal of making the NCAA tournament.
"I don't want to make it dramatic, but we did need a win like that without question," he said.