How Michigan State went from a crazy loss to a top-10 win vs. Illinois
EAST LANSING – At first, there was anger.
Michigan State had just blown a nine-point lead in the second half, missed 10 free throws and had its key players quiet late in an upset loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night.
In the locker room after the game and on the plane ride home, one emotion pervaded me.
“We had to come out here and be around everyone angry,” Spartans point guard AJ Hoggard said. “Everyone is angry, especially when you have to come back. It’s not like you can leave the locker room and go home.”
But eventually, that anger turned into reflection.
The Spartans have shown promise this year but have been struggling to turn the corner and play like a high-level team. They knew they needed some big wins to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, and the visit of a top-10 team in Illinois on Saturday provided the best opportunity to do that.
So after the anger subsided, the players and coaches sat back and looked inward.
“It took a lot of time and I think everyone did a little bit of self-reflection on what we had to do to become the team we were today,” Spartans forward Malik Hall said. “I think that’s what’s helped us the most, is taking the time to reflect on things we’ve done in the past.”
Four days after that disappointment in Minnesota, the Spartans came away with one of their best games of the season: They shot better than 50 percent, made free throws, rebounded well and pulled away in the final three minutes to beat the No. 10 Illini at home, 88- 80, Saturday afternoon.
In doing so, Michigan State went from one of its most disappointing losses of the year to one of its best wins in a quick week that could be crucial to this Spartans season.
The transformation has been led by two of the Spartans’ most veteran players who had tough outings in Minnesota.
Hoggard went just 1-for-6 at Minnesota with four points, and Tom Izzo criticized his guard’s shot selection down the stretch.
Hall was aggressive early against the Gophers but was scoreless over the final 30 minutes of the loss while going 1-for-6 from the free throw line.
“I said all veterans have to do better,” Izzo said. “The veteran coach and the seniors….that’s what you have to count on.”
On Saturday, these two led the way with over 20 points each on a pair of standout performances and each had key baskets at critical points of the game.
Hoggard matched his career high with 23 points thanks to a 12-for-13 performance at the free throw line. With four minutes left, he hit a 3-pointer and scored a three-point play in a 48-second span to lift Michigan State from sixth into a tie.
“AJ was the guy I was working with for four years,” Izzo said. “Tonight, I saw why. He played very well, getting into people’s defense. I told him at half-time if we win this game I’m going to kill him, because that’s what I need on a regular basis.
Hall found success time and time again in the position, going 7-for-9 from the field en route to 22 points. He made perhaps the two biggest shots of the game from back-to-back three-point plays that gave Michigan State the lead for good with two minutes left.
That capped off a game in which the Spartans had more energy early on to finish and more movement in an offense that had become stagnant last time out.
“We played harder than we did in Minnesota,” Hoggard said. “We played hard in spurts in Minnesota, and I thought we played hard the majority of the game tonight.”
Izzo was also very critical of himself and Michigan State’s coaches after the loss to Minnesota. He said he left that game as upset as he had been in years and spent the next two days consumed by the performance. He had long staff meetings with his coaches and photo sessions with his team.
What came out of all those meetings, all that anger and all that introspection, was a team that looked vastly different and pulled off one of its biggest wins of the year.
“We definitely thought we let someone go to Minnesota,” Spartans guard Tyson Walker said. “So just trying to be better.”