Well, that’s not the first half the Illini were looking for. Groce, Hill, Finke, pretty much everyone talked about playing with a sense of urgency as a key to playing winning basketball. They were right. Indiana came out with great energy and confidence. The flew up and down the court with purpose, made great decisions with the ball, and scored on what seemed like every open shot. Problem: they got a lot of open shots. More on that later.
Illinois tried to counter by throwing the ball inside to Thorne, but didn’t get much out of it. His first baby hook was a good shot, but just rimmed out. That was as close as that strategy got to success. By the first media time out, IU was up 13-0 and Malcolm Hill had 3 fouls. Yikes.
Groce wanted to see if his team had learned to respond when they got punched in the mouth. He thought the response was good at home last week when Ohio State came back from 11 down in the second half to take the lead. Well, maybe we need to be clear about the kinds of punches we’re taking here. Compared to the uppercuts delivered by West Virginia and Maryland, that OSU run was just a little left-handed jab. The Hoosiers hit the Illini with a right hook in the first half and withstood several Illini body blows in the second half to win going away.
Illinois came out with the same strategy of throwing the ball in to the post in the second half, but with Maverick Morgan manning the post in place of Mike Thorne. He scored on the first few possessions, but so did Indiana. Less than three minutes into the half, Abrams sat down with this third foul, and Malcolm Hill had had enough.
After scoring his first field goal with 17:05 left in the game, Hill put on a show. He took the fight to the Hoosiers, relentlessly driving to the hoop, scoring buckets, and drawing fouls. With Hill scoring off the bounce, Jalen Coleman-Lands hitting some threes, and Maverick Morgan dropping sweet short jumpers and baby hooks, Illinois got off the ropes and punched its way back into the game.
A nice series by Kipper Nichols – rebound, basket, steal – cut the deficit to 12, and a three from Coleman-Lands got Illinois within single digits. Were we going to see a Rocky ending? Preferably Rocky 2, where he wins, but after that first half, I’d take Rocky‘s split decision.
But Thomas Bryant made sure there would be no Hollywood ending for the Illini tonight. His second three-pointer made it 73-87, and the Illini couldn’t get up again, finally falling 80-96.
This game was actually more entertaining than the score would seem to indicate. Well, the second half anyway. Illinois showed that it could take a punch (or twelve) and keep getting up, although the barrage they sustained in the first half made a complete comeback really, really difficult. In addition to showing resiliency and determination (if not an ability to get out of the gates, to mix my sports metaphors even more), we saw some good things from several players. Hill didn’t play much of the first half, and his jump shot wasn’t falling, but he still carried the team with 21 points. Lately he’s shown an ability to take the ball to the hoop effectively and draw fouls even when his jumper is off. This is something Hill has been working on, and it shows. Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols got extended playing time, and both did some good things. Lucas led the team with 4 assists, and Nichols pulled down 4 rebounds. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan were both effective on the offensive end, scoring 21 and 18 points, respectively.
The offense wasn’t the problem, though. Even though the Illini struggled to score in the first minutes, they did put up 80 points, and with the run they put together at the end, there wasn’t a ton of garbage time. Defense continues to be a challenge for the Illini, as players seem to lack the lateral quickness to stay in front in man-to-man and recover in zone. They also leave the baseline open way too often. The strategy seems to be to try to outpunch the opponent. Maybe Rocky is an apt analogy after all, but I don’t know who’s going to write the Illini’s Hollywood ending.
Photo source: Joe Robbins/Getty Images via Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/ct-illinois-vs-indiana-photos-spt-20170107-photogallery.html