Before scoring 15 points in a loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, Brandon Paul had disappeared, figuratively, failing to reach double figures in eight straight games.
Jereme Richmond had disappeared, literally, returning to home to spend time with his family as he dealt with what he and Bruce Weber termed “personal issues” that were mysterious enough to set the internet ablaze with speculation he was transferring.
But in Tuesday night’s 71-62 win over Michigan State, it was the play of Paul and Richmond that saved the Illini.
Paul got things started, going 6-8 from the field and knocking down four threes en route to 17 first half points that helped Illinois build a 41-37 lead at the break. He would end with 20 points as Richmond helped finish off the Spartans, scoring eight of his career high 14 points in the second half as the Illini were able to hold off Michigan State down the stretch.
“We need those guys to all figure out what they can give us,” Illini head coach Bruce Weber said after the game. “Then we’ll have some consistency.”
“Those guys can do some things that our other guys can’t do.”
Illinois certainly needed them to do those things tonight.
The Illini looked terrific in the first 29 minutes of the game. Demetri McCamey was carving up the Michigan State defense, to the tune of 15 points and 11 assists. Keith Appling did a pretty good job on slowing McCamey’s offense down — he was just 4-11 from the field — but the Illinois point guard was able to find the hot hands when they were open. Four of Paul’s seven field goals were assisted on by McCamey (the other three were assisted on by Richmond) and four of Richmond’s six fields goals were assisted on by McCamey. Richmond also scored on a putback dunk and a pull-up jumper.
But the Illini hardly put this one away. When Michigan State ramped up their defense down the stretch, Illinois struggled, hitting just 1-9 from the floor in the last 11:01.
On the defensive end, they were allowing Michigan State to get open jumper after open jumper. Whether it was off of set plays or a kick out, the Spartans had about 10 straight possessions late in the second half that resulted in a perimeter jumper. They just missed them. If a couple of those jumpers go down, the outcome of this game could have been very different.
Sparty looked like Sparty down the stretch. They were getting to the offensive glass. They were keeping Illinois off of the offensive glass. They were forcing the Illini into tough shots. But they couldn’t complete their comeback because they were ice cold from the floor.
One of the knocks on Michigan State this season is that they get too passive and too content to take contested threes. The difference tonight was that the threes they were getting late in the game weren’t contested. A number of them were wide open. Almost all of them came off of a kick out or off of a screen. They were good looks, and when you have four guys shooting over 40% from deep (Kalin Lucas, Keith Appling, Durrell Summers, Draymond Green), a good look from three isn’t exactly a bad shot.
But the Spartans missed those late threes. For the game, they were just 7-26 from deep. After Lucas hit back to back jumpers to cut the Illini lead to 59-53 with 10:29 left in the game, the Spartans were just 1-14 shooting jumpers.
Most were good looks.
But in order to make a come back against a quality team like Illinois on the road, you have to knock down those good looks.
Michigan State missed, and its why they fell into a tie with the Illini two games behind Ohio State in the Big Ten’s loss column.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.