Late-Game Heroics Come Up Short For Illinois Basketball

(Mike Granse / USA Today Sports)

(Mike Granse / USA Today Sports)

Illinois basketball’s home matchup against Ohio State on Thursday night had a similar feel to the team’s other games this season, but had a different twist.

After running away with a quick offensive start to the game, the Illini faltered and couldn’t keep up their momentum for much of the game until the end. Illinois battled for much of the second half and overcame its first-half blunders to force overtime, but a batted ball in the last seconds of the game hurt the Illini in their 68-63 loss.

Head coach John Groce has seen his players lose their will to win at the end of games such as the one against the Buckeyes. This time, he was happy they battled back to at least force overtime

“My goodness did they play hard,” Groce said of his team after the game. “At the end of the day, I was proud of the effort, but not of the execution.”

Kendrick Nunn led the way for the Illini, finishing with 24 points and added five rebounds and one assist. Trevor Thompson led the way for Ohio State with 16 points.

Although the game seemed lost in the final minutes, the Illini fought back to give themselves a chance to tie  and win the game on their last possessions. With a missed offensive sequence by the Buckeyes, Illinois led the ball down the floor and freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands made the 3-point shot to tie the game at 58 with a minute left.

The teams exchanged buckets during overtime and Illinois again had an opportunity to tie the game with a three on its last possession. The Illini failed to get set offensively though and lost the ball, finishing with an easy layup for Ohio State.

While many fans were heading toward the exits, the Illini knew that defense was the key if they wanted to win the game.

“We just tried to stay together,” Nunn said. “We knew it would take a defensive effort and we tried to play that way.”

Illinois encountered offensive struggles again, this time against Ohio State. The team shot 18-of-56 from the field and 9-of-29 from 3-point range. Nunn was the only Illini who created offensive momentum until fellow junior guard Malcolm Hill got out of a rut in the second half to finish with 12 points.

The Illini started the game hot with a 8-0 run on a couple of 3-point shots and a field goal. The lead grew to 13-2 halfway though the first half until Ohio State slowed down the game and tied the game with just over five minutes left in the first half. Both teams struggled to score in the opening half — Illinois shot 7-of-25 from the field while Ohio State shot 11-of-35 — but the Buckeyes managed to hold off the Illini to enter halftime with a 29-24 lead.

Nunn led the team with 13 points in the first half and had little help from his teammates. Hill was the next closest players with four while three other Illini scored. The junior shot 1-of-8 from the field and missed both of his 3-point attempts.

Illinois tried to cut into Ohio State’s lead early in the second half but ended up trading baskets with the Buckeyes for much much of the first five minutes of the second half. Although Illinois forced the game into overtime, Hill looked tired and didn’t give the Illini a chance during the final seconds of the game.

“Sometimes we just stand and don’t get player movement,” Nunn said. “We just need to get ball and player movement.”

The absence of Mike Thorne Jr. also continued to haunt the Illini. Both Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke had good defensive starts to the game but failed to meet the challenge of Ohio State’s bigs as the rest of the game went on. Thompson added five rebounds to his 16 points while Keita Bates-Diop added 15 points and 12 rebounds.

The Buckeyes out-rebounded Illinois 30-14 and 11-1 on the offensive boards in the first half and finished with a 51-34 overall rebound advantage, 13-5 offensive board advantage at the end of the game.

Missed free throws also played a major factor in Illinois’ loss. The Illini made 18-of-31 free throws after the Buckeyes continued to foul Illinois early, putting the team in the bonus early in both halves.

Although there were plenty of reason why the Illini failed to win the, Groce couldn’t fault his players’ effort.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the outcome,” Groce said. “Why did get beat? Poor free throw shooting, poor rebounding in the first half and we failed to execute … (but) we’ll figure it out, but I was proud of the effort.”