EAST LANSING – Coming off an exhausting loss at the hands of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Michigan State basketball team was looking to bounce back and pick up a marquee win at home against Illinois.
Senior guard AJ Hoggard knew it was his time to step up to the plate and hit a home run after a disappointing 1-6 shooting night at Minnesota.
“AJ is a guy I’ve been on for four years. Tonight you saw why,” head coach Tom Izzo said.
The veteran leadership came through in a pivotal moment for the Spartans, as Hoggard dropped 23 points alongside zero turnovers on the night.
With the Spartans facing an eight-point deficit with just over six minutes to go, it felt as though Illinois was on the cusp of closing this game out.
That eight-point lead suddenly vanished after a few Tyson Walker free throws, a corner three from Hoggard, and a three-point play in the paint from Hoggard that put MSU right back in the game.
Not only was it Hoggard who stepped up for the Spartans, but graduate forward Malik Hall finished on two momentum-shifting three-point plays to push MSU ahead in the dwindling minutes of the game, finishing with 22 points and five rebounds himself.
With all of the momentum on its side, the Breslin crowd piercing each other’s ears, and the players with smiles as bright as this team’s expectations, Michigan State was able to down 10th-ranked Illinois 88-80.
“My hat’s off to Tom [Izzo] and their group,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “It felt like we had the game right in hand, up eight. I give [MSU] credit. They executed, we [Illinois] didn’t.”
For the Fighting Illini, graduate guard Terrance Shannon poured in 16 points on 4-7 shooting in the first half, carrying the team in the first 20 minutes of the contest. Shannon connected on tough shot after tough shot to go back-and-forth with Michigan State in the first half.
A late 10-0 from Michigan State woke up the offense in the first half, capped off by a step-in three-pointer from junior guard Jaden Akins that nearly blew the roof off of the Breslin Center, giving MSU a 44-41 lead at halftime.
The second half saw the same back-and-forth action that the crowd was treated to in the early half of the game. The afternoon battle included the score being tied 15 times and 16 lead changes.
Graduate guard Tyson Walker, while it may have been an “off-night” for him, dropped 19 points on 7-15 shooting, good enough for 35 straight games scoring in double figures.
In the end, it was the veterans who led the team through the closing minutes, something Izzo was greatly fond of seeing.
“I said, ‘All the veterans have got to do a better job’. Veteran coach and the seniors,” Izzo said.
Hoggard reflected on his coach viewing him as a leader, and what he has done to be able to lead this team down the stretch.
“That’s me just being a leader on extension of [Izzo]. We fought, we kept our mental capacity,” Hoggard said.
This may have been a crucial get-right game for the Spartans, but for this team, it felt like it was March.
“Definitely a March Madness-type feel,” Hoggard said.
“[The game] did seem like a March game, and if it is I love it,” Izzo said.
Corralling a win that seemed to have put some flair back into this team was indicative of what this team can accomplish when the regular season turns to the postseason. Solidifying a postseason tournament bid began on Saturday afternoon but doesn’t stop there. Michigan State will travel to Penn State on Wednesday, Feb. 14, to try to gain another Big Ten win and kick off a two-game road trip that ends in Ann Arbor next Saturday.