- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

CHAMAPIGN, Ill. (AP) - In losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern, Illinois couldn’t find the basket. Against Purdue, the Illini lost the game on the boards.

On Saturday No. 4 Michigan State was just plain better, beating the Illini (13-6, 2-4 Big Ten) at home 78-62 and extending their losing streak to four.

“Today’s issue wasn’t fight. Today’s issue was we ran into a really, really good basketball team,” Illinois coach John Groce said.

Groce was calm in the postgame news conference, but he was visibly and audibly frustrated on the sideline much of the game, arguing calls with officials and slamming his fist into the scorer’s table over his team’s play.

The win was the 10th straight for Michigan State (17-1, 6-0), and earned it the best start in school history. No Spartans team had previously won 17 of its first 18.

The victory also moved Michigan State coach Tom Izzo past Illinois’ Lou Henson, who was at the game, and into fourth on the list of career Big Ten wins with 215.

Izzo called the win a sign of progress.

“We’re getting there,” he said. “We’re gutting things out. We’re better defensively than we were a month ago, we’re better rebounding then we were a month ago.”

Izzo said he talked with Henson before the game, but downplayed moving into the No. 4 spot. Bob Knight holds the No. 1 spot with 353.

“It’s nice,” Izzo said. “I’m going to call Bob and make sure he realizes there’s no worries. Nobody’s catching him.”

Michigan State owned the boards early against the Illini, outrebounding them 24-10 over the first 20 minutes. The Spartans used that edge to open up a 10-point lead by halftime and held the Illini at arm’s length the rest of the night.

Gary Harris had a game-high 23 points and Keith Appling added 15 for the Spartans. Tracy Abrams led Illinois with 15 points.

Illinois closed to 59-53 with 6:11 in the game on two free throws by Abrams.

But almost as quick as those shots sparked a little hope for Illinois, Appling snuffed it out with a long 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

“For whatever reason, we fell down in the zone,” Groce said. “Appling made a big shot.”

Michigan State was up 62-53 with 5:43 to play, and with the Illini shooting a tepid 38 percent and unable to drum up many second chances, the Spartans were comfortably out front.

Michigan State played without 6-10 center Adreian Payne, out for a third consecutive game with an ankle injury. But against an Illinois team with little inside presence, the Spartans didn’t seem to need him.

“We learned to play without him,” Harris said. “Some other guys stepped up. We’re building a deeper team.”

Michigan State outrebounded Illinois 38-25. Denzel Valentine was at times dominant, particularly in the first half. He had nine rebounds by halftime, finished with a game-high11 and scored 15 points. He also held Rayvonte Rice to 12 points. Rice entered as the conference’s second-leading scorer, averaging 17.7 points a game.

The Spartans also made the most of their shots, sinking 55.8 percent of them.

Illini big men Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan had a combined five rebounds and four points. Egwu hasn’t scored in his past two games in spite of starting both and playing 55 minutes.

Groce’s frustration has been growing with the losing streak. After Wednesday’s loss to Purdue he charged toward officials to complain about calls.

Early in the first half Saturday night, he shouted across the court at his own team after a miss, “I didn’t want that!” He then turned and slammed his fist into the scorer’s table in front of the Illinois radio crew.

Late in the game, after several confrontations with officials, he threw his suit jacket and was called for a technical foul.

Groce declined to discuss his exchanges with officials or their calls, but both he and Izzo said they believe there are problems with how rule changes designed to increase scoring are being called.

“In my opinion, it’s completely different than maybe what I saw on the (NCAA) video that was sent to me in the fall,” Groce said.

“I think everybody’s confused,” Izzo added. “It’s hard on everybody.”

Illinois has a tough road ahead with its next four at No. 11 Ohio State, at Indiana and then at home against No. 14 Iowa and No. 3 Wisconsin.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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