Well, what do ya know? Illinois might have actually turned this season around at the last possible moment. Behind scrappy defense and hot three-point shooting, the Illini led most of the way and beat the Spartans last night at a sold out State Farm Center 73-70.
This was Senior Night for six young men who have played a big role in John Groce’s program. Tracy Abrams, Alex Austin, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, and Mike Thorne, Jr. were honored before the game for their contributions to Illini basketball. Each member of the class of 2017 has started at least one game for the Illini, and five seniors have played starting roles this year. Aside from Abrams, none of the Illini seniors have played in the NCAA tournament. By beating MSU last night, they kept hope alive that they might yet dance before their college careers are over.
The game was high octane from the beginning as the teams traded baskets and stayed within six points of each other until Illinois went on a run. The game was tied at 23 when the Illini shot out to a 32-24 lead behind two three-pointers by Leron Black and another by Jalen Coleman-Lands. The lead was 10 with a minute to go before MSU scored 4 points in the final 4 seconds on a layup and a steal and a layup. Momentum seemed to have shifted, and the score was 39-33 going into the locker room.
The Illini scored the first two points of the second half on a bucket by Morgan, but then they went cold for nearly three minutes, allowing Michigan State to go ahead. The two teams jostled for dominance, but Illinois took the lead for good with 14:23 left. Although an eleven-point margin dwindled to one with just under a minute to go, the Illini defense held and Hill and Kipper Nichols each split a pair of free throws to force the Spartans to launch a last-second three-pointer that missed the mark. The crowd erupted, Malcolm Hill was dragged to his feet after being leveled by a Spartan pick, and the celebration was on for a senior class and an Illini squad that just may have enough magic to make their NCAA dreams come true.
The atmosphere at the SFC last night was unlike anything we’ve seen in the past couple of years. It was raucous, it was loud, it was intense. In short, it was the House of ‘Paign. I had forgotten how much fun the Assembly Hall used to be, when Illini teams were expected to take on and beat the top teams in the conference in heavyweight bouts. Opponents used to be intimidated by Illinois’ home court advantage and with good reason. From the 1999-2000 season through the 2005-2006 season, Illinois was 93-4 at the Assembly Hall.
That’s pretty good, and that’s the standard at Illinois. That’s why Illini fans aren’t satisfied with a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten record and bubble status come Tournament time each year. We know what this program can be and what it has been up until the past 10 years or so. If John Groce saves his job with this late run, he needs to know that Illini Nation expects significant improvement next season and beyond. I’m not convinced Groce is the guy to lead the program to sustained success, but that’s obviously above my pay grade (which is $0.00). I do think that Josh Whitman is aware of the standard to which Illinois fans and alums hold the basketball program, and that he’ll do his best to make Illinois a top ten – top fifteen outfit again. If the Illini win at Rutgers and then take their first Big Ten Tourney game, I think they have a decent shot. Win two in DC, and they’re likely dancing. I’ll be cheering for that outcome for these great seniors, and I’ll also be cheering for Whitman to do what’s best for the long term health of the program.