CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Down two points with 14 seconds to play Tuesday night, Michigan State center Derrick Nix had a chance to tie Illinois and give the ninth-ranked Spartans a shot a stealing a win that would give them a share of the Big Ten lead.
But the junior missed the first of his two free throws, and a late, desperate drive by Keith Appling came up empty, too, leaving the Spartans (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) on the short end of an ugly 42-41 loss.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo wasn't happy how Appling, or the rest of his team, played under pressure on a night when neither team shot well.
"I didn't think we handled adversity very well at all," Izzo said. "My two best players had their worst games."
Draymond Green, half of the two Izzo singled out, finished with five points and eight rebounds in just 16 minutes. Appling had four points and four rebounds to go with five turnovers.
Possibly worse, Green left the game with just under 4 minutes to play with an apparent left knee injury. He didn't return after being helped from the court in obvious pain, and Izzo wasn't sure how bad it was.
"I have no idea how he is," Izzo said after leaving the Spartans locker room. "I'm not even sure exactly what it is."
The shooting — 32.6 percent for Illinois (16-6, 5-4) and 24.1 percent for Michigan State — was so bad that players suggested the ball may have had too much air in it. Illinois' Brandon Paul, who missed the front end of two 1-and-1s in the final minute that could have put the game out of reach, was one of them.
"Someone brought it up to the refs, I think one of the coaches," Paul said. "I'm not trying to make excuses. I missed those free throws, I shouldn't be missing those shots."
The win ended a three-game losing streak for the Illini, a run that left coach Bruce Weber resorting to prayer.
"When the shots go up, I just say, 'Please, God, let it go in,'" Weber said. "Some of the shots just sat in there and then popped out."
Paul led Illinois with 18 points.
He scored 13 of Illinois' 20 second-half points, but was 6 of 17 from the field. He was 5 of 9 from the free throw line and the Illini finished 9 of 17.
After burying those two late free throws, his misses on the 1-and-1s that followed gave the Spartans — with Green on the end of the bench wincing in pain — a chance to steal the game with 11 seconds to play.
But down 42-40, Nix's misses and Appling's failed drive with 2 seconds left exhausted the final chances for the Spartans.
"He had a rough night," Izzo said of Appling. "When Draymond went out, he tried to take the game over. It's a shame because we had our chance and we didn't get it done."
Green hit a key layup in a 9-0 run that gave the Spartans a shot. They were up 36-35 with 5:01 to play. But just over a minute later he was being helped form the court.
With 2:09 left and Michigan State up 40-37, Illinois freshman Tracy Abrams hit a 3-pointer to tie the game.
After losing three games straight by a combined 11 points, Illinois badly needed to hold on against Michigan State, Abrams said.
"It shows toughness. Coach always says, 'When things aren't going right, how do you respond as a team?'" Abrams said. "We stuck together."
Branden Dawson had 12 points for the Spartans.
While their shooting was awful, the Spartans pulled down 49 rebounds, 23 on the offensive end.
In the first half, the Spartans had more rebounds (22) than points, and trailed 22-20 at halftime.
Green spent the last 10:56 of the first half on the bench with three fouls, the last a technical when he complained about a foul call.
The technical cost Green a sharp chewing-out by Izzo as he took his place on the bench.
The game was physical, with Izzo complaining to the referees at one point, "They're killing us down here."
"This was WWE wrestling," Weber said.
Paul often matched up against Green, and relished seeing the big forward pile up fouls.
"He's obviously a great player and he does everything for them," Paul said. "I got a couple fouls on him early, and with him we probably should have capitalized on it more."
Given Michigan State's rough first half, it was hard to figure why Illinois headed to the locker room with a narrow two-point lead.
The Illini were 9 of 25 from the field after 20 minutes and 3 of 7 from the free throw line.
The biggest shots for Illinois in the first half were arguably two putbacks by freshman Myke Henry.
The first, off a miss by D.J. Richardson, put Illinois up 18-16 with 5:43 left. The second came with 34 seconds left, off another miss by Richardson, and gave the Illini their halftime lead.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP.