Illinois Basketball Can’t Keep Up With Notre Dame

State Farm Center

State Farm Center on Dec. 2, 2015. Photo taken by Michal Dwojak

The Illinois basketball team tried to live up to the hype on a big night for the program but couldn’t keep up with Notre Dame in its 84-79 loss.

The Illini lost its matchup in the Big Ten/ACC challenge on a night when State Farm Center opened for the first time this season and on the night the program dedicated former Illini coach Lou Henson.

Despite the pomp and circumstance of the night, the battered Illini couldn’t keep up with the Irish after a first start. Head coach John Groce knows his players can’t get out of sync if they want to compete lateen games.

“I thought it was two completely different halves,” Groce said. “In the end of the day, our defense wasn’t good enough … I’m getting tired of saying it. Players need to start doing it.”

Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill led the way for Illinois, finishing with 19 points, three rebounds and three assists. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia led the scoring for Notre Dame with 21 points each. Jackson added two rebounds and four assists while Vasturia added three rebounds and three assists.

The Illini were aggressive early and carried much of the momentum in the first half. Nine different players scored in the first half and the players moved the ball around the court, shooting 50 percent from the field and 41.7 percent beyond the arc — Hill, Jahid Lewis and Kendrick Nunn each has seven points at the half.

Notre Dame came out hot after trailing 41-33 at the half. The Irish started the half with a 7-0 run and outscored the Illini 51-38 in the second half. Jackson made one of his five attempts and had four points in the first half but rebounded in the second half, making 7-of-7 shots and had 17 points. The Irish made 57.1 percent of their field goals and 60 percent of their 3-point attempts.

Illinois struggled to score in the second half after Notre Dame changed to a zone defense. The Illini made two of their 18 shots with seven minutes left in the game and couldn’t fight off the cold shooting. They shot 35.1 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from beyond the arc in the second half — both percentages increased because of better shooting in the last minutes of the game.

“We have the players to can make that shot and can create on offense,” Groce said. “But, at the end of the day, you have to defend and rebound the ball. You have to be consistent. (Not making shots) doesn’t help us.”

Junior Maverick Morgan made his first career start and had on-and-off game. The center played in place of Michael Thorne Jr., who is out indefinitely after tearing his meniscus. Morgan stood his ground at times in the paint against Notre Dame’s big men but also folded, allowing the Irish to either feed it the post or drive to the open lane.

Michael Finke and Leron Black tried to help out in the post but also struggled at times. Zach Auguste benefited from the mismatches, finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds.

The loss came on a night when the University honored the program’s past during halftime. Henson was recognized in the middle of the game as part of the court’s dedication to the coach. The recognition comes a couple weeks after Henson was inducted to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

The game was the first at State Farm Center this season. Illinois played its home games during November in Springfield, Illinois, because of ongoing renovations. The arena itself is completed, there is still concourse work that will be done during the offseason to finish the renovations.

Groce was happy about the atmosphere inside the renovated arena, but he knows that his team could’ve played better to make the occasion end in a good way.

“Great environment,” Groce said.  “It was a special day. I was happy for Coach and see all the guys back here. I just wish we could’ve played better.”