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Michigan State expects 'stabilizer' Malik Hall to bounce back after 'tough' miss


East Lansing — Forget about the numbers, Malik Hall was the guy Michigan State probably wanted at the free-throw line Tuesday night at Illinois.

The Spartans, in one of their poorest efforts of the season, had somehow managed to pull within two points when Hall was fouled going to the basket with less than a second to play. Hit both shots and Michigan State would have forced overtime, the only chance at that point to pull off a rally from a 14-point halftime deficit.

Early in the season, Hall was nearly perfect from the line, making his first 11 free throws, not missing until the ninth game of the season against Toledo. But he went 1-for-4 at Minnesota and over the four games heading into the trip to Illinois, he was 2-for-7.

Not great, to be sure, but considering how clutch Hall has been all season, he was a solid bet to hit the freebies and force an extra five minutes.

“He’s our stabilizer,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the game.

So there was Hall, alone at the line with the crowd at the State Farm Center doing its best to blow the roof of the old spaceship-looking arena that had been buzzing the entire night. Hall set himself, and with the orange-clad fans at a fever pitch, he sent the ball toward the hoop. It swirled into the side of the rim, hit the backboard and then the front of the rim before falling off to the court.

The building erupted. Hall’s shoulders sunk, his eyes dropping to the floor. In an act of cruelty, Hall, while attempting to miss the second free throw, actually made it, leaving the Spartans a point shy of the comeback. Hall’s teammates quickly embraced him, just as they did Marcus Bingham Jr. in the loss to Northwestern.

“It was tough,” Hall said after practice Thursday. “Everyone wants to make that shot. You dream about that shot as a kid, and it hurts for it not to go in. And my free throws are something I’ve been working on a lot recently and trying to get better. I started off really good at beginning of year and kind of dropped off a little bit, so I’ve been working on them and it’s something I continue to work on.

“Obviously, it hurts. But it wasn't just one free throw. That one free throw could have saved us, but it’s not the reason that we were even in that situation in the first place.”

More: The season of giving (the ball away) again bites Michigan State at Illinois

It was, however, the final deflating blow on a night full of mistakes and missed shots for the 10th-ranked Spartans, a game they truly had no business winning, just as Izzo said afterward.

“We didn't deserve to win, whether we would have won it at the end,” Izzo said. “They deserved to win. They outplayed us most of the game. We made a hell of a run, which I guess you’ve got to give us a little credit for, but they deserved to win.

“That game was lost way before that. That’s the beauty of basketball whether you’re a reporter, whether you’re a parent, whether you’re an AAU coach. You always look at that game and say, ‘Oh, I missed that free throw at the end.’ You think nothing of the three layups, four layups we missed in the beginning.”

Izzo’s right when factoring the misses and the turnovers, but with Hall on the court in the final minutes, the comeback seemed possible. And when he drew the foul after grabbing the rebound of Trent Frazier’s front-end free-throw miss, overtime seemed likely.

Instead, the junior captain will need to put the miss out of his mind, and quickly with Michigan coming to the Breslin Center on Saturday.

“I think he’s mentally tough enough to handle that,” Izzo said. “Hell, his coach carried around a newspaper article around for 25 years because I missed a one-and-one to go to the state semis. He’s got a good teacher. He’s got a good guy to tell him how it sucks, but how you have to work through it.”

Odds are he will. After all, Michigan State (15-4, 6-2 Big Ten) would not have been in position to potentially tie the game if not for Hall. He scored only seven points, but all seven came in the final six minutes of the game as Michigan State had scratched its way back, holding the Fighting Illini without a point over the final 5:32.

Of Michigan State’s final nine points, only Joey Hauser’s deep two from the corner wasn’t scored by Hall. In fact, it was at the free-throw line where Hall made two in a row to pull Michigan State within four, 56-52. His jumper from the lane with 1:02 left brought the Spartans within two points to set up the finish.

It was the sort of production Michigan State could have used throughout the game, but Hall played less than seven minutes in the first half, an odd moving considering he was coming off one of his best games in Friday’s win at Wisconsin.

He said he’s focused on being more aggressive early in games, realizing he can be a difference maker for the Spartans. And his coach is focused on making that happen, too, while also expecting a big bounce back from his most steady player.

“I thought that was another mistake on my part,” Izzo admitted afterward. “I think the first half Malik needed to play more. He’s our stabilizer. He didn’t play as much. Marcus was playing pretty well and we were having trouble guarding their small lineups.

“But I think Malik will be fine. He’s a great kid.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau