CHAMPAIGN – After eight eventful days in which their best player was out of the lineup and another returned only to get leave again, Illinois ends up right back where they were on January 18th.

When it was all said and done on Tuesday night, the Illini sat alone at the top of the Big Ten conference – even if getting there was a bit stressful.

Without Kofi Cockburn (concussion protocol) and Andre Curbelo (COVID safety protocol) out of the lineup, Illinois raced out to a 14-points lead on tenth-ranked Michigan State at the State Farm Center on Tuesday night. But the Spartans rallied, and in the end, the Illini were barely able to hold on.

Fouled by Coleman Hawkins with less than left and Illinois up by two, Michigan State’s Malik Hill missed the first free throw but “accidentally” made the second as he tried to miss off the rim in hoping for a game-tying tip.

The Illini inbounded the ball to finish off a 56-55 win that improves them 7-2 in the Big Ten, which is a half-game better than the Spartans and Wisconsin for the top spot in the conference.

Trent Frazier led the short-handed Illini with 16 points and actually scored their final points of the game on a pair of free throws with 5:33 remaining to give his team an eight-point lead. As Illinois struggled from the field, Michigan State would finish the game on a 7-0 run, but couldn’t get that last point on the free throws to force overtime.

Alfonso Plummer added 11 points on the night while freshman Luke Goode added nine points and his three-pointer with 15:26 left gave the Illini their biggest lead of the second half at 15. It would be enough for the team to end their two-game Big Ten losing streak that included a January 18th loss to Purdue at home then on Friday to Maryland on the road.

So despite a number of things going on Tuesday night and the seven days prior, the top of the Big Ten remains orange and blue as January comes to a close.