‘Only up from here’: Illinois downs Michigan State, extends win streak to three

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois is streaking.

Riding high after two straight wins, Illinois had gotten right back into the mix in the Big Ten after starting 0-3 in the conference. Although, a very difficult task stood in their way of extending the streak Friday night as the Tom Izzo led Michigan State Spartans paid a visit to State Farm Center.

After being down by four points at halftime and as big as nine in the second half, Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja combining for 26 second-half points propelled Illinois (12-5, 3-3 Big Ten) to a 75-66 win.

“We beat a really good basketball team tonight,” said head coach Brad Underwood.

Mayer and Dainja were not the spotlight of the whole game though, as Terrence Shannon Jr. led the way in the first half with 15 points. Shannon’s scoring stopped after, but that prompted Mayer’s second half scoring barrage to commence. Two huge shots from behind the arc highlighted Mayer’s night during the run that took the Illini from down five to up five in a matter of a couple minutes.

“I knew that [Underwood] was going to try to get the ball in my hands as much as possible,” Mayer said. “I’ve been struggling a lot through the beginning of the season, but when people get going he finds them, and that’s what happened tonight.”

Mayer got it done on the defensive end too — with a stat you may not expect from a player like him.

“It’s not very often that you get a perimeter player with six blocks,” Underwood said. “So it wasn’t just his offensive numbers, he had six blocks tonight.”

Dainja’s workload mostly came in the paint, as he showed his strength on offense other defense against the Spartans who lack larger interior size.

“I just get better with [interior play] every single game,” Dainja said. “Sometimes I mess it up a little bit, but for the most part I just try to have active feet and active hands and it’s been showing.”

Michigan State (12-5, 4-2 Big Ten) came into this game on a seven-game win streak where they relied heavily on rebounding and efficient shooting to propel them over their opponents. Guards AJ Hoggard (20 points) and Tyson Walker (14 points) were a big part of that aforementioned efficient shooting — that was until Illinois turned it on halfway through the second half.

“We were really just trying to emphasize long twos, that’s what our whole defense is about,” Mayer said. “Hoggard and Walker were making a lot of them, but that’s what were trying to go for. They’re both talented players, and that’s what we’re willing to give up.”

From there, Illinois would end up with a better field goal percentage (45% to 43.1%).

Michigan State still out rebounded Illinois on the defensive end in total (27 to 22), but the improvements made at halftime — especially from Dainja — gave Illinois the edge in that category during the second half.

“We really challenged [Dainja] at halftime cause he didn’t have a defensive rebound,” Underwood said. “Everybody in this room has seen Dain be a dominant rebounder, we need that from him.”

This win was huge for Big Ten play moving forward and it looks like the Illini have finally found their stride.

“I think it’s only up from here,” Mayer said. “I still truly believe we can win a national championship.”

  • DAINJA ZONE: Dainja had himself a Friday night, recording 20 points (the only Illini with 20+) and recording eight rebounds. He even went four-for-five from the free throw line which is a sight all of Illini nation loves to see.
  • HALF-TIME DEFICIT: The Illini had not fared well being down at halftime this season, having a record of 1-4 in those games.

They flipped that script Friday night.

  • 10-0 RUN: The Illini were down by five near the 10-minute mark in the second half, but a 10-0 run including two Matthew Mayer three-pointers put them up five points. They wouldn’t trail again following the run.

Mayer sends this into oblivion.

Mayer also started the run with this shot that made the building skirt.

I know we mention it above, but State Farm Center really was electrical.

Illinois rides the win streak into the Twin Cities for a MLK Day matchup against Minnesota.

Tipoff against the Gophers is scheduled for 5 pm CT on BTN.

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