Michigan State coach Tom Izzo after the No. 9 Spartans’ 79-74 loss at Illinois on Tuesday.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tom Izzo shuffled his starters.
He wanted more from Nick Ward. He wanted more defensive rebounding. He wanted more cohesion.
No. 9 Michigan State instead turned the ball over, including a rare ugly night from Cassius Winston, and continued to give up offensive boards.
And the Spartans nearly pulled off another seemingly improbable comeback victory. Instead, they took another loss, the synchronicity from the first 20 games rapidly evaporating.
MSU rallied from a seemingly insurmountable 14-point, second-half deficit in the final 13 minutes to take a late lead, but Illinois recovered for a 79-74 victory Tuesday night at State Farm Center.
MSU (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) fell out of a first-place tie with the loss, its first three-game losing streak since January 2017.
Winston, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, committed a career-high nine turnovers but recovered to score 21 points with nine rebounds. Ward, in his first game coming off the bench since last year’s win at Illinois, finished with 11 points but just one rebound.
Xavier Tillman scored a career high 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his first career start, while Kyle Ahrens scored 11 points in his return to the starting lineup for the Spartans, who return home to host Minnesota on Saturday (2 p.m./ESPN).
Ayo Dosunumu scored a game-high 24 points and was one of four players in double figures scoring for the Illini (8-15, 4-8), who won for the third time in their last four games.
Illinois seized control early behind some hot outside shooting, leading for nearly 34 minutes.
But the Spartans showed the resiliency they have flashed in a comeback win at Iowa and loss at Purdue. Even though it wasn’t enough.
They ripped off a 22-5 run, with Winston draining a 3-pointer off a missed Aaron Henry dunk and Kenny Goins swishing back-to-back 3s to give them their first lead. Tillman’s putback off a Winston miss gave MSU a 66-63 lead with 5:26 to play.
But the Illni got a three-point play from Andres Feliz on a layup and a Winston foul with 4:16 to play. Donsunumu hit back-to-back 3-pointers from the top of the arc to give the Illini the lead for good.
Winston and Tillman kept things close at the free-throw line, making 6 of 6 in the final minute and pulling MSU within three with 26.2 left on Tillman’s two makes. But Illinois’ Trent Frazier hit a pair after being fouled, Winston got blocked and Goins’ desperation 3-point attempt bricked to allow the Illini to run out the clock before their Orange Out-clad fans stormed the court.
Izzo said on his pregame radio show he was unhappy with Ward’s rebounding effort in Saturday’s 79-75 overtime loss at home to Indiana. That led him to give sophomore Tillman his first career start at center. The 24th-year coach also swapped in junior Ahrens, who has been battling a back injury, for freshman Henry on the wing.
Izzo called the decision “part of the teaching moments” and urged fans not to overthink the moves.
Ward’s time on the bench only lasted 1 minute and 25 seconds, when Tillman picked up his first foul. The 6-foot-9 senior entered the game and got seven points on 2 of 3 shooting and made all three of his free throws but grabbed no rebounds in 12:33 of play in the first half. He also had two turnovers and was a minus-13 on defense.
Ward finished with 19 minutes and made 4 of 6 shots.
Tillman had six points on 2 of 3 shooting and grabbed three boards, but the Illini got five offensive rebounds and four second-chance points in taking a 41-32 lead into half.
Tillman finished 5 of 6 from the field and 6 of 7 at the free-throw line.
Ahrens made just 2 of 7 shots and had one 3-pointer blocked and airballed an other in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
A year ago, MSU went up big in the second half and held on after a late Illini charge for an 87-74 victory. But in that game, the Spartans committed 15 turnovers that turned into 14 Illini points in the first half.
That same scenario played out again in the first 20 minutes Tuesday. MSU coughed the ball up 17 times by halftime, this time leading to 18 Illinois points. Seven of them were by Winston, and he committed his eighth early in the second half and a ninth later a few minutes later — eclipsing his previous career-worst eight he had in last year’s win in Champaign.
Winston finished 6 of 13 shooting but was just 1 of 5 from 3-point range.
The Spartans equaled their season-worst 24 turnovers, which they also committed in a November win over Texas in Las Vegas. Illinois scored 28 points off the giveaways.
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