EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State started its long string of NCAA Tournament appearances in the previous century by being the toughest team on the court in most games.
If the Spartans can extend their streak to 23 straight tournaments next month, their win over No. 5 Illinois might prove to be pivotal. Coach Tom Izzo’s program got back to its roots and picked up a quality victory.
Aaron Henry scored 20 points and Joshua Langford had 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds to lead Michigan State past the Fighting Illini 81-72 on Tuesday night, bolstering its chances of playing in college basketball’s showcase.
The Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) played with a sense of urgency from the start, physically going at their opponents at both ends of the court.
"They punched us in the mouth," said Illinois guard Trent Frazier, who scored 22 points.
The Fighting Illini (16-6, 12-4) had won a Big Ten-best seven straight games, putting them in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Against a suddenly stingy defense, though, their star players weren’t as productive as usual.
"For the most part, we fought and scrapped and that’s all you can ask of a team," Izzo said.
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu, coming off his second triple-double in a 94-63 win over Minnesota, had 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting. The dynamic Dosunmu did have nine rebounds and five assists. Illini center Kofi Cockburn scored 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
"They mucked the game up and made it ugly," coach Brad Underwood said.
Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser each scored 13 points for the Spartans, who were in control for much of the game with balanced offense and aggressive defense.
"We wanted to be aggressor," Langford said. "We wanted to hit them first."
Langford has taken a lot of hits in his career, missing all of last season and much of the previous year with injuries. He also was one of many people in the program to test positive for COVID-19 during the season.
In the opening 20 minutes against Illinois, he matched a career high with 10 rebounds and scored seven points to help Michigan State lead 36-26.
"Langford was unbelievable in the first half," Underwood said.
The Alabama was a highly touted recruit when he signed with Michigan State five years ago in a recruiting class that included Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges.
Lately, Langford had been shooting, running and jumping as well as ever to bounce back from a series of setbacks.
"Nobody has been through more than Josh Langford," Izzo said. "I’m so happy he played so well and that he’s leading so well."
Illinois: The balanced, talented and tough team is one of at least a few in the highly competitive Big Ten that has a chance to end the conference’s national championship drought, which stretches to the Spartans’ title in 2000.
"This game doesn’t define us," Frazier said.
Michigan State: Izzo, a Hall of Fame coach, hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997. The Spartans will have at least three more chances to improve their resume and rally into the field. They next host No. 4 Ohio State and have two games scheduled against rival and third-ranked Michigan to close the regular season.
"The margin for error is really, really slim," Langford said.
The Illini won their previous five games on the road, averaging 85 points. They shot 24% and were held to 26 points in the first half at Michigan State before shooting better and scoring more in the second half. Illinois entered the game scoring 81.8 points per game this season, ranking No. 16 among Division I programs.
"They practice with football pads," Frazier said. "We knew what we were getting."
Michigan State freshman Mady Sissoko was ejected with 4:08 left after hitting Dosunmu in the face, drawing a flagrant foul.
The Illini, who haven’t won at Michigan State since 2015, will likely slip in the AP Top 25 after getting upset as a seven-point favorite.
Illinois hosts Nebraska on Thursday night.
Michigan State welcomes the fourth-ranked Buckeyes on Thursday night.
"We have another test coming up quickly," Langford said. "Ohio State is not going to care about the win we just had."