Illinois is making things really interesting.
The Illini seem to have waited until the last possible moment to make a late-season run that could end with them in the NCAA tournament. And those postseason hopes are still alive, as hard as that might seem to believe, after John Groce's team reeled off its fourth straight win on Wednesday night in Champaign, winning the biggest of the two games remaining on its regular-season schedule by beating the visiting Michigan State Spartans by a 73-70 score.
Illinois had a lead as big as 11 midway through the second half but watched Michigan State mount a furious rally, wiping that margin almost all the way clean. The Spartans had the gap down to four on multiple occasions, none more dramatic than when Miles Bridges splashed home a 3-pointer with under five minutes to play. Kenny Goins again brought the deficit to just four with a basket with under two minutes to play, and in the game's final minute another Bridges 3 chopped the lead to just one, at 71-70.
Maverick Morgan played hero from there, grabbing a massive offensive rebound on the ensuing possession. Malcolm Hill split a pair of free throws, and after Bridges missed a game-tying shot attempt, Kipper Nichols also split a pair of free throws. Michigan State, down three with three seconds left, couldn't pull off the type of improbable full-court heroics Northwestern did earlier in the night in a win over Michigan, allowing Illinois to grab a landmark win in its quest to keep its postseason hopes alive.
Hill finished with a game-high 22 points, one better than Bridges' 21-point output. Leron Black had 15 for Illinois, and Morgan ended with 14 points. Alvin Ellis III scored 15 for Michigan State, and Nick Ward finished with 11.
The prospect of the Illini snapping their three-year NCAA tournament drought seemed laughable not too long ago. But Illinois is now on a four-game win streak with wins in five of its last six games. What was a 3-8 conference record is now an 8-9 conference record, and the Illini have a strong chance of finishing the season .500 in the league with their final regular-season game coming against Rutgers, the conference's worst team.
The NCAA tournament resume isn't glistening. But this late-season surge features a pair of wins over Northwestern, plus this victory over Michigan State, two teams that seemd destined for the Big Dance. The Illini also have wins this season against Michigan, VCU and North Carolina State. In a season where the bubble is being described nationwide as weak, it's enough to get Illinois into the conversation. And even that is a shocker considering where this team was just a few weeks ago.
But the play has improved dramatically in recent games. Just once since the end of January has a team scored more than 70 points against the Illinois defense.