CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Michigan State had gone up by 3 points with less than 4 minutes to play, appeared to be closing strong toward a major road victory at Illinois and an inside track toward serious contention for a Big Ten title.
Everything in the 2012 season that was already on pace to exceed expectations began to look even better.
But then senior captain and Draymond Green went down with a non-contact injury to his left knee with 3:50 remaining. The Spartans eventually lost 41-40 as MSU was unable to generate good offensive opportunities in the final possessions without Green.
It was MSU's second 1-point road loss of the Big Ten season, but perhaps more importantly the Spartans headed home to East Lansing wondering whether they have lost their physical, spiritual and emotional leader for an extended period of time, or perhaps even the season.
"I have no idea," head coach Tom Izzo said after the game when asked about Green's health and availability for coming games, including Sunday's home matchup against Michigan. "He didn't walk off, that's for sure."
After sustaining the injury, Green fell to the ground and clutched his left knee. Rather than being helped off the court, he hopped off on one foot.
He was able to bend it while sitting on the bench. But with :40 seconds remaining in the game when trainers asked him if he could stand on it, Green tried and quickly aborted the attempt, shaking his head no and exhaling with a forlorn look on his face.
Green was seen leaving the locker room after the game on crutches with an ice pack on his knee.
Green has had knee trouble in the past. He sustained a major knee injury during the summer of 2006, prior to his junior year in high school. Ironically, he sustained that injury at the MSU auxiliary gym during a team camp at Michigan State. Green did not have a scholarship offer from MSU at the time, and was actually a Plan B prospect in the Spartans' eyes. When he went down with the injury on that afternoon, Izzo - who was standing nearby - was one of the first out to check on him and console him.
Green wouldn't get an MSU offer and commit to the Spartans for another 12 months, after a successful recovery and the first of two high school Class A state championships at Saginaw.
Green has had some knee injury scares at other times during his career at MSU, but this one is by far the most concerning, both for himself and the team's near-term and long-term fortunes.
"I have no idea how he is. They are going to examine him. I'm not even sure exactly what it is. I'm not sure he (knows what it is) or the doctors."
After the game, Green tweeted an update on the injury.
"I serve The Awesome God knee will be fine Michigan in Sunday... Thanks for everyone's thoughts and prayers they are greatly appreciated," Green tweeted.
The injury was a terrible ending for a trying day for Green. Suffering from a stomach flu and vomiting at pre-game, Green allowed frustration to get the better of him midway through the first half when he complained about a charging foul, which was his second personal foul of the game. He was hit with a technical foul by referee Jim Burr.
Green sat the last 10 minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half with three fouls. Izzo yelled at Green vehemently for losing control of his emotions and allowing himself to get into foul trouble due to a technical.
"It's a shame, because earlier in that game, he just didn't play very well," Izzo said. "He gets 8 rebounds in 16 minutes, but really six of those minutes he really wasn't even playing hard because he had four fouls and can't do anything."
With Green out, the Spartans scored on only one of their last four possessions. Down by 1 point with :12 seconds left, MSU called time out and Izzo set up a high ball screen isolation for sophomore point guard Keith Appling.
Appling drive, drew double-team attention and missed a knifing 5-footer in the lane with less than :03 seconds left.
"We wanted Keith to get in the lane and get fouled but he got in the lane and he just threw it up," Izzo said. "It almost went up, but it wasn't very smart. That was poor execution on our part."
Appling struggled for most of the game and was benched temporarily immediately after making mistakes three times on the evening.
Appling finished 1-of-11 from the field with 2 assists and 5 turnovers in 34 minutes. Illinois played terrific defense, but with Green unavailable for most of the game, Appling chose a tough night for one of the worst games of his career.
"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.
"When DayDay is out, Appling has to step up and the poor kid had one of his worst games. I don't know what happened to App. That's a disappointment because a point guard has to take over a game like that. I don't know if he got tired; we just had to play him to death."
MSU fell to 17-5 and 6-3 in the Big Ten. The Spartans are a game behind Ohio State in the Big Ten standings.
"It was a hard-fought game and one that I'm very disappointed in because I thought we cracked for the first time," Izzo said. "I don't think we handled adversity very well at all.
"My two best players had their worst games. Draymond had been sick as a dog, and then he let it all get to him. And then Keith picked a bad day to have a bad day."
Too Much Air In The Ball?
In a game in which neither team made even one third of its shots, it seemed right the deciding free throws would be followed by a few more misses.
Illinois' Brandon Paul made two foul shots that gave the Illini the lead with 45 seconds to play, then missed the front end of two 1-and-1s to give No. 10-ranked MSU two possessions in the final :25 seconds to tie or take the lead.
On the first chance, down by 2 points with :14 seconds left, Derrick Nix was fouled near the rim. He made one of two foul shots to cut it to 42-41.
Then after Illinois' second one-and-one miss, Appling came up short with his drive at the buzzer.
"We took some poor shots when we penetrated in," Izzo said. "We should have gone into Nix more. I though Payne and Dawson played awfully well. There weren't many other guys that played very good.
"The defenses were solid, but I didn't think great. How many lay-ups did we miss? And there was a lot of contact on a lot of them. I was disappointed in that. It was very, very, very physical on the shot and I was disappointed about that.
"Late, I thought Nix and Payne got murdered in there a few times but that's the way it goes on the road.
"It was a very tough loss, a very disappointing loss," Izzo said. "So many guys didn't play well it was scary."
The shooting -- 32.6 percent for Illinois and 24.1 percent for Michigan State -- was so bad that players suggested the ball may have had too much air in it.
"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 (16-6, 5-4 Big Ten), 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."
"I didn't think we handled adversity very well at all," Izzo said. "My two best players had their worst games."
Paul led Illinois with 18 points.
He scored 13 of Illinois' 20 second-half points, but was 6 of 17 from the field with Appling serving as the primary defender on him for most of the night. He was 5 of 9 from the free throw line and the Illini finished 9 of 17.
Despite the foul trouble and earlier tribulations, Green scored on a terrific drop step move in the post to give MSU a 36-35 lead with 4:57 left, keying a 9-0 Spartan run.
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. Abrams is a 27-percent 3-point shooter on the year and MSU played the drive during a ball screen and gave him a little bit of room to shoot. Shoot he did, and he bucked the scouting report by burying the three on an otherwise terrible shooting night for all involved.
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, including two on a big defensive rebound and coast-to-coast take in the first half, and a fabulously powerful and quick spin move in the second half. These were possibly the two best offensive plays of the year for the freshman. He also went up for some gigantic rebounds on a couple of occasions, in boys vs men form.
Dawson finished with a game-high 13 rebounds as MSU dominated the glass, 49-32.
"I'm proud of them for dominating the boards," Izzo said. "In general, I thought Nix was good and Dawson was phenomenal with the job he did, but our guards didn't guard and that disappoints me.
"A lot of credit to Branden Dawson. He made his free throws. He rebounded the ball. He did a great job for a freshman.
"In a lot of ways I should be satisfied with Dawson, Nix and Payne, but that's not enough to win on the road. Both teams battled but we sure didn't do the job. We didn't get enough play out of enough guys."
Izzo said on Monday that Trice was questionable to play due to a groin injury. But Trice played 22 minutes and had 5 points.
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.
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."