Beating Maryland in New York a few weeks ago was a significant feat for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Beating Michigan State on Tuesday in Champaign was even better.
The mood inside the Illinois locker room — not to mention the pervasive feeling among Illini fans in the Land of Lincoln — is considerably improving. How could it not? A team seems to be figuring out how to play defense for a coach who knows that his defense needs to generate offense. Illinois is putting the pieces together, and its coach hopes this win over Michigan State will become a game people remember for all the right reasons.
“I mean, it’s just one of 20 (Big Ten games), I know,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said after a 79-74 triumph over Tom Izzo’s Spartans. “But man, it’s also more than that, you know? It feels like one of those defining moments, I think, where we found out who we are.”
“I think that first half was as good a defensive effort as I have ever coached,” Underwood said. “It led to some really good offense for us.”
It was also a first half in which Illinois forced 17 Michigan State turnovers, en route to 24 total for the Spartans by the time the game ended. How much fun did Izzo have when watching his team stumble against Underwood’s defense? At one point, he rammed his fist into the scorer’s table. He was furious, and despite a late surge by his team, Michigan State couldn’t get over the hump. Illinois had the last, best answer, thanks to 24 points from Ayo Dosunmu.
Will this game define Illinois basketball in the Brad Underwood era? We will see… but at least Illinois has created a special moment which gives the program a chance to grow.
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