CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Illinois needed something to feel good about after a rough stretch this month.
There were the losses, one at Wisconsin that the Illini could stomach and another at unranked Penn State that was tougher to take.
Then there was the rumor - quickly denied - that freshman Jereme Richmond wanted to transfer after missing practice and heading home before Saturday's loss to the Badgers.
All of this with No. 1 Ohio State headed to town Saturday.
No. 23 Illinois found the answer to many of those problems Tuesday night, getting 20 points from Brandon Paul, 14 from Richmond and several late free throws that helped hold off 17th-ranked Michigan State, 71-62.
``I think everyone goes through these stretches somewhere in their schedule and we're just fortunate enough to get (a win),' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. ``Now we've got to see if we can get the second one on Saturday, and it's not going to be any easier.'
The Illini (14-5, 4-3 Big Ten) led by as many as 10, at 53-43, on a 3-pointer by Paul with 13:08 to play.
But they had to hold off a late Spartans charge that made Michigan State coach Tom Izzo feel as though his team was never more than a key shot or two from a potential win.
One late possession neatly summed up the misery for Michigan State (12-6, 4-2).
With the Spartans down 67-62 with just more than 2 minutes to play, Durrell Summers missed a jump shot that was followed by three straight missed chances to tip the ball in. Finally, Mike Davis swooped in to grab a rebound for Illinois and end the suspense.
``We had a chance but we could never get over the hump,' Izzo said. ``Give Paul credit; he hit some big shots, some deep shots, some shots coming away from the basket.'
Paul scored 17 of his 20 points in the first half and was the biggest reason why the Illini hit 61.5 percent of their shots during the first 20 minutes.
The Illini led 41-37 at halftime and outscored Michigan State 12-6 over the first 7 minutes of the second half.
They closed that stretch with two inside points from Richmond on a long pass from Demetri McCamey that sliced just over the outstretched hands of two Spartans defenders and a 3-pointer from Paul after Richmond forced a Michigan State turnover.
But after a dunk that had revved up the home crowd, Kalin Lucas hit a 3-pointer that quieted fans and pulled the Spartans to 59-53 with 10:28 remaining. Lucas led the Spartans with 15 points.
Just 46 seconds later, Delvon Roe sank a short basket that cut the Illini lead to 59-55. With 8:55 to play, Roe tipped in a miss to cut it to 59-57.
The Illini, after riding their outside shooting much of the night, spent the next 3 minutes methodically rebuilding their lead at the free throw line.
Mike Tisdale hit one, followed by two each from McCamey, Davis and Richmond to stretch Illinois' edge back to 65-57.
Davis finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
``I promised (Weber) I would get at least four rebounds a half, and I did it,' said Davis, a frequent target for Weber's criticism due to his inconsistency.
Paul's first-half outburst included nine points on 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range.
The sophomore guard, coming off the bench, hit one 3 that capped a 7-0 run that gave Illinois a 28-23 lead with 8:24 to play in the first half.
Just under 5 minutes later he nailed his last 3-pointer of the half from the baseline in front of the Michigan State bench, giving the Illini a 38-31 cushion. Less than a minute later he added a three-point play when he was fouled by Keith Appling.
``I just wanted to come out with a lot of energy,' said Paul, who played with an ankle injury. ``My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball, and I was making my shots.'
Paul played defense, too.
With 2:16 to play in the half and Illinois leading 41-35 he sprinted the distance of the court to chase down Korie Lucious, cleanly swatting down what looked like an easy layup off an Illini turnover.
After losing their shooting touch in back-to-back road losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, Illinois found its form. The Illini went 25 of 47 (53.2 percent) from the field and made eight of their 17 3-pointers.
Illinois hit 61.5 percent of its shots - including six of its nine 3s - in the first half and led by as many as eight over the first 20 minutes.
Richmond missed some practice time before the Wisconsin game and didn't play to deal with unspecified family issues. He issued a statement earlier this week denying rumors that he was considering transferring, and deflected questions about them Tuesday.
``There wasn't much to it - I just had to go home and touch base with my family for a short period of time,' said Richmond, who is from Waukegan in the Chicago suburbs. ``My teammates and coaches did a good job of supporting me. I just wanted to come back with more energy and better focus, and I feel like I'm doing it.'
McCamey had 15 points and 11 assists.
Summers had 13 points and Roe added eight points and 10 rebounds for Michigan State, which travels to Purdue on Saturday.
The Associated Press News Service
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