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Neitzel sparks Michigan State past Illinois

Mar 7, 2008 - 7:35 AM CHAMPAIGN, Illinois (Ticker) -- After an uneven month of February, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo may be prepping his team for another deep NCAA Tournament run.

Drew Neitzel had 17 points and Goran Suton added 10 and 10 rebounds for the 18th-ranked Spartans en route to a 59-51 victory over Illinois in Big Ten Conference play on Thursday.

Izzo has led Michigan State (24-6, 12-5 Big Ten) to four Final Fours and one national championship during the team's streak of 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Another deep run did not seem probable after the Spartans' 3-4 record during February.

"We all know what the situation was; we lost two tough games at Iowa and Penn State and that's going to hurt for a long time, but we had confidence coming in," Spartans senior center Drew Naymick told the Ann Arbor News. "We knew what we could do."

However, March has started much better for Michigan State, especially after it routed conference rival Indiana, 103-74, on Sunday and broke its four-game losing streak at Assembly Hall on Thursday.

"It was a good win for us because most of our people don't think we can win a game on the road, and I guess that's true because we haven't won as many in the last couple years," Izzo told the News. "But it was a dogfight game."

"That's been on my mind all week, to be honest with you," Naymick told the newspaper. "This is my fourth trip here, but my first 'W'."

With the game deadlocked at 31-31 at the break, Naymick hit consecutive jumpers to spark a 7-0 run that opened the second half. Neitzel capped it with a 3-pointer.

While the Fighting Illini (12-18, 4-13) managed to cut its deficit to three points on two occassions midway through the second half, Neitzel hit another shot from the arc with 7:01 remaining to give the Spartans a 49-43 lead.

Illinois, which shot 54 percent (14-for-26) in the first half, struggled mightily toward the end of the game, going 32 percent (6-for-19) from the floor over the final 20 minutes.

"Their defense was the same," Illinois senior center Shaun Pruitt told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We just turned over the ball too much and didn't execute right. It was a little sloppy."

After the Illini's Brian Randle dunked to cut the deficit to 51-45 with 4:24 remaining, the Spartans forced Illinois into seven consecutive missed shots until Randle scored on a layup with 27 seconds left in the game.

Suton and Neitzel bookended Randle's layup with two free throws apiece to seal the victory.

Pruitt led the Illini with 13 points - the only player to finish in double figures.

With its seventh loss in its last nine games, Illinois tied the school record for losses in a season, previous established by the 1998-99 team.