CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois needed a win badly, to right a ship that had been stuck in rough waters, this month.
There were the losses, one at Wisconsin that the Illini could stomach and another at unranked Penn State that was tougher to take. Then there was the rumor — quickly denied — that freshman Jereme Richmond wanted to transfer after missing practice and heading home before Saturday’s loss to the Badgers.
All of this with No. 1 Ohio State headed to town Saturday.
No. 23 Illinois found the answer to many of its problems Tuesday night, getting 20 points from Brandon Paul, 14 from Richmond and several late free throws that helped hold off 17th-ranked Michigan State, 71-62.
“I think everyone goes through these stretches somewhere in their schedule and we’re just fortunate enough to get (a win),” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Now we’ve got to see if we can get the second one on Saturday, and it’s not going to be any easier.”
The Illini (14-5, 4-3 Big Ten) led by as many as 10, at 53-43, on a 3-pointer by Paul with 13:08 to play.
But they had to hold off a late Spartans charge that made Michigan State coach Tom Izzo feel as though his team was never more than a key shot or two from a potential win.
One late possession neatly summed up the misery for Michigan State (12-6, 4-2).
With the Spartans down 67-62 with just more than 2 minutes to play, Durrell Summers missed a jump shot that was followed by three straight missed chances to tip the ball in. Finally, Mike Davis swooped in to grab a rebound for Illinois and end the suspense.
“We had a chance but we could never get over the hump,” Izzo said. “Give Paul credit; he hit some big shots, some deep shots, some shots coming away from the basket.”
Paul scored 17 of his 20 points in the first half and was the biggest reason why the Illini hit 61.5 percent of their shots during the first 20 minutes.
The Illini led 41-37 at halftime and outscored Michigan State 12-6 over the first 7 minutes of the second half.
Copyright The Associated Press