It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Illinois lost a tough one last night at home to the Terrapins. In a scrappy first half, the Illini’s much-improved defense held Maryland in check for about 19 minutes. It didn’t hurt that Maryland missed several open three-pointers that they usually make, but Illinois’ defensive effort was noticeably better than it has been all season. Leron Black played especially well in the first half, with 11 points and 6 rebounds. The jump shots were falling, Maverick Morgan doing his thing making shots on the block, and Illinois built an 11-point lead at 27-16. The 14,000-strong crowd at the SFC was roaring. Was Illinois going to avenge the embarrassment of two weeks previous?
Then things started to fall turn ever so slightly. My brother, who lives in Seattle where TVs were tuned to the Seahawks-Falcons game, texted me for an update with about five minutes left in the half. I told him the Illini looked dogged. (Like dog-ed, not dogged.That would come later.) They were playing with determination and grit, but there wasn’t much flow to the offense, and both teams were starting to get sloppy. With under a minute left in the half, Illinois was up 9. Malcolm Hill fouled a Maryland player, who made two free-throws. Fine. Still up 7, but teetering. With about 8 seconds left, Hill dribbled across half court, got his pocket picked by Melo Trimble, and watched the Terrapins’ star guard go the other way for a layup as the buzzer sounded. As Coach Groce later said in his post-game remarks, “Felt like a pick-6.” Illinois went into the half still up 32-27, but having missed the opportunity to capitalize on a strong defensive effort and an off night thus far from Maryland.
The second half was back and forth for the first five minutes. Then Maryland’s halftime adjustment to start doubling Morgan in the post began to cause Illinois real trouble. When Morgan got the ball inside, he was immediately doubled, and Illinois was unable to take advantage through either quick passing or making jump shots. Instead, they turned the ball over several times and then were unable to hit a shot. Any shot. For 7:53. At the same time, Maryland guard Jaylen Brantley got hot to the tune of 12 points; his most production since he scored 13 against Illinois on December 27. During the drought, Illinois clanged jumper after jumper. The 10-footers that fell for Black in the first half rimmed out in the second. Hill’s drives in the paint came up empty. It was grim. The crowd tried gamely to will the Illini to see one go down, but to no avail. Groce commented, “Just didn’t make enough of em on inside-out action.” Or any action, really.
Illinois finally came back to life with about five minutes to go, but by then they were down 10. A couple of late threes and Maryland’s struggles from the foul line kept this one interesting into the final minute, but the Illini just couldn’t pull it off, falling 56-62.
This game was disappointing. Illinois did not play well, and neither did Maryland. This was an opportunity to beat a good team on an off night, and the Illini just couldn’t get it done. The freshmen who’d played with such energy and effectiveness against Michigan really struggled last night. Kipper Nichols had two rebounds, a turnover, and no points. Te’Jon Lucas scored 2 points, had 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 4 assists, and one turnover. The stat sheet doesn’t show the defensive breakdowns and miscues that resulted from inexperience. Hill struggled, too. He had 11 points and 8 rebounds, but shot 5-14 and didn’t get to the free throw line once. Tracy Abrams was a nonfactor, which is actually putting it politely. He had no points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, one steal, 2 turnovers, and 4 fouls. He looked completely out of sorts, not at all the bulldog team leader he’s been throughout his career. Mark Tupper wrote a good article wondering whether he’s injured or something else is going on. You can read it here: http://herald-review.com/sports/tupper-abrams-game-has-been-fading-fast/article_6b02fbd3-48c9-5202-bf22-319c7e353334.html
When questioned about Abrams in the post-game, Groce agreed that he didn’t play well and said he would talk with him. Here’s hoping Abrams can turn it around this year and have a successful senior season. He’s earned it, but basketball and sports success doesn’t always fall to the deserving.
Photo: Robin Scholz, AP via The Baltimore Sun. http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/terps/tracking-the-terps/bal-maryland-illinois-basketball-20170114-story.html
Photo: Mike Granse, USA Today Sports via SBNation Testudo Times. http://www.testudotimes.com/maryland-terps-basketball/2017/1/14/14275462/illinois-final-score-recap-stats-game-box