Smile Politely

Illini pick up crucial win against Rutgers

Illinois’ 66-54 victory over Rutgers last night was important. Taking into account the Illini’s 4-5 conference record heading into the game, and considering their desire to return to the NCAA Tournament this year, the win was crucial.

It put them back on even ground in the Big Ten ahead of the stretch drive of their season, which includes a date with league-leader Wisconsin, two with Michigan State, and four others with Purdue, Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska — all teams stuck in the middle of the pack with Illinois, trying to play their way onto the NCAA bubble.

Some good things happened in the Rutgers game. The Illini hit 48% from the field and made all nine of their foul shots. Their perimeter defenders harassed Myles Mack, the Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer, into one-of-eight shooting from the three-point line. Kendrick Nunn bounced back from a shaky performance against Penn State on Saturday; his 21 points and six rebounds were team highs. Jaylon Tate continued his steady and heady play at the point, contributing six assists against only one turnover. Freshman Leron Black shot five of six and was aggressive without incurring the wrath of the officials.

But as critical as it was for the Illini to hold serve at home against one of the worst teams in the conference, it was troubling to see them labor again to put an opponent away. Those familiar with this team and its late-game struggles were no doubt leaning forward in their seats when, at the ten-minute mark in the second half, Ahmad Starks’ layup pushed the Illinois lead back to 16. Go ahead, fellas, and win this one by 20 or so, they surely said to themselves. Pour it on. Step on their throats!

It feels good to rout an opponent, even a bad one, and these Illini need all the good feelings they can get. 

But the Illinois offense stagnated following Starks’ basket, only once pushing for an easy Nunn layup seconds after a Rutgers score. The rest of the time found the Illini seemingly complacent, content to settle for contested three-pointers at the ends of lengthy possessions. It boggles the mind that Illinois, second in the nation in free-throw shooting at nearly 80%, can’t force itself to the foul line more often.

No, Rutgers was the aggressor down the stretch, whittling the deficit down to eight points with four and a half minutes remaining. The Illini hung on, but, at home against a struggling opponent, hanging on seems somewhat disappointing. 

The make-or-break portion of Illinois’ campaign begins now. The team’s best player, Rayvonte Rice, should soon return to the court from injury and suspension. John Groce’s teams have historically come together late in seasons to finish strong. Here’s to hoping that’s again the case, as opposed to the Illini just hanging on.

Photos by Mark Jones/Illini Athletics.

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