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Illini answer call too late in loss to Michigan State

Illinois coach John Groce seemingly had plenty issues with his team — with referees — during home-court loss Michigan State.

Illinois coach John Groce seemingly had plenty of issues with his team — and with the referees — during a home-court loss to Michigan State. | Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:59AM

CHAMPAIGN — By the time Illinois answered the bell coach John Groce had been ringing ­furiously for nearly 72 hours, it was too late.

Three days after being outrebounded 23-7 by Purdue in the second half of a home game they let get away, the Illini failed to bring the toughness Groce had demanded to see against No. 4 Michigan State.

By halftime of their 78-62 ­victory, the Spartans held a ­giant rebounding advantage of 24-10. Restless fans inside the State Farm Center had seen this movie before. The Illini got their act together in the second half, raising their intensity several levels, but again — too little, too late.

Groce’s team fell to 13-6 overall and 2-4 in Big Ten play. The Illini have lost four games in a row for the first time under their second-year coach.

“We’ve got some work to do,” Groce said. “But we’re six rounds in [in Big Ten play], and you’ve got 12 rounds left.”

The frustration clearly is wearing on Groce. He was mighty ticked off at his players Saturday night. Malcolm Hill felt his wrath early. Maverick Morgan felt it late. In between, Groce urged his team on, often angrily.

He also was at odds with the refs throughout the game, mostly for what he considered inconsistent whistles on high ball screens. More accurately, the Illini were whistled multiple times for setting illegal screens. The Spartans not at all.

Groce was called for a technical foul late in the second half. This, after he followed officials off the court at the end of the loss to ­Purdue.

MSU coach Tom Izzo said afterward that he “felt bad” for Groce, and that the new rules in college basketball have “confused everybody” — players, coaches and game officials.

Groce rolled his feelings into a ball of postgame sarcasm, saying of the refs he’d just spent two hours laying into: “I thought they were terrific.”

Illinois junior center Nnanna Egwu continued to twist himself into useless knots on the floor, going scoreless and grabbing two rebounds in 22 minutes. Morgan, a true freshman, saw his most extensive action of the season and seemed to clearly outplay Egwu, but Groce continued to stress it’s things Egwu does that don’t show up on the stat sheet that make him too valuable to go without.

MSU, meanwhile, is rolling like never before. Despite top big man Adreian Payne missing his third consecutive game with an injury, the Spartans ran their record to 17-1 (6-0 Big Ten), the best start in program history. Gary Harris (23 points), Keith Appling (15) and Denzel Valentine (15) were brilliant.

Illinois had beaten MSU three consecutive years, and won seven of the last nine, in Champaign.

Tracy Abrams led the Illini with 15 points.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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