CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—With a share of the Big Ten title on the line and Illinois closing fast on what had once looked like a comfortable lead, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo put his faith and the ninth-ranked Spartans’ fate in the hands of a little used grad student from Nigeria.
Idong Ibok hadn’t played since Feb. 17, and is averaging just over six minutes on the court this season.
But with Illinois center Mike Tisdale coming to life in the second half and what had been an 11-point lead vanishing, Izzo said he had nowhere else to turn.
“It was a panic decision,” Izzo said. “When we couldn’t handle Tisdale, Ibok did a great job and stepped up for us.”
Facing the 260-pound Ibok, Tisdale faded and Michigan State (23-5, 13-3) held on for a 74-66 win that guarantees the Spartans at least a share of the Big Ten championship. Only 16th-ranked Purdue (22-7, 11-5) can catch the Spartans.
Sunday’s win came at the expense of a man Izzo called one of his best friends, Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who entered the game knowing a win kept the No. 20 Illini (23-7, 11-6) in the race for the title.
Reporters, Weber said, asked him earlier in the week what he feared most about the Spartans.
“I said Tom Izzo, because I knew he would have them ready to play,” Weber said. “We spotted them a seven-point lead and we could never really catch up. We had to adjust but then we were playing catch up the whole time.”
That opening 7-0 run and the up-tempo pace the Spartans set from the tip-off put the Illini immediately on their heels.
With 4:31 left in the second half, Illini forward Mike Davis sank a soft jump shot to cut the lead to 27-26.
But 13 seconds later, Michigan State’s Marquise Gray pushed the gap back to three with a layup and, with 4:01 left in the half, Raymar Morgan gave the Spartans a five-point lead, 31-26, on a layup of his own.
Morgan had 14 points and Kalin Lucas led the Spartans with 18.
“Their transition was so good and we weren’t ready for that,” Weber said.
Lucas also provided for his teammates. He had four assists, including the pass that created Travis Walton’s jump shot a minute into the second half, the one that gave the Spartans a 41-30 lead.
“I thought we had a secure lead,” Izzo said.
At about that point, though, Tisdale and his hook shot changed the game.
“We just told Mike at halftime, get your fanny down in the block, shoot your hook and make them block you,” Weber said.
Tisdale did, and the Spartans, for a time, couldn’t do much about it.
His last points, a pair of free throws, cut the lead to 56-53 with 8:51 left to play.
Then, after a layup by Walton, a three-pointer by Illinois guard Trent Meacham and a layup by Jeff Jordan tied the game at 58 with 7:19 left.
But Tisdale, thanks to Ibok, never scored again. Even though Michigan State didn’t score again until a Lucas layup more than two and a half minutes later, Illinois couldn’t find the basket that would give it the lead.
“We had opportunities,” Illinois guard Chester Frazier said. “We had a lot of chances to tie, and take the lead. But the ball bounces that way sometimes and they played great defense and took advantage.”
Michigan State outscored the Illini 16-8 down the stretch. Six of those points came from Lucas, four from the free throw line.
The championship is Izzo’s fifth in his 13 seasons at Michigan State.
He said that, among his more successful seasons, this has been the toughest.
“Defensively we were awfully good,” Izzo said, adding that his team had to overcome both a tough crowd and Illinois’ defense, statistically the best in the Big Ten. “So maybe my team is growing up a little bit, because we controlled a decent amount of that game.”