CHAMPAIGN – Gary Harris scored 23 points and Denzel Valentine pulled down 11 rebounds to lead No. 4 Michigan State past Illinois, 78-62, on Saturday night.
The Spartans (17-1, 6-0 Big Ten) stayed on top of the Big Ten with their 10th straight win. With the victory, Michigan State is also off to the best start in team history. No Spartans team has ever won 17 of its first 18.
After opening conference play 2-0, Illinois has now lost four in a row.
Michigan State owned the boards early against the Illini (13-6, 2-4), 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.
Valentine and Keith Appling each added 15 points for the Spartans. Tracy Abrams led Illinois with 15 points.
The win moved Michigan State coach Tom Izzo past Illinois’ Lou Henson and into fourth on the list of career Big Ten wins with 215.
Illinois closed to within six at 59-53 with 6:11 in the game on a pair of 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.
Michigan was up 62-53 with 5:43 to play, and with the Illini shooting a tepid 37.7 percent and unable to drum up many second chances, Michigan was comfortably out front.
The Spartans 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, they didn’t seem to need him.
Michigan State outrebounded Illinois, 38-25. Valentine was at times dominant, particularly in the first half. He had nine rebounds by halftime and held Rice to 12 points. Rice entered the game 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 a point in his past two games in spite of starting both and playing 55 minutes.
Illinois coach John 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 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.
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.
The Spartans play their next two at home, Tuesday against Indiana and Jan. 25 against Michigan.