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Illini show heart in overtime rally past Michigan

I had the whole thing typed out, the negative story, the one about Illinois laying an egg at home against a bad Michigan team. And then. 

Nnanna Egwu forces a turnover on a 5-second violation. Kendrick Nunn drives the lane and scores. Rayvonte Rice gets a rebound and Nunn scores a three from his favorite spot in the corner at the other end. Suddenly it’s tied 50-50 and I’m still thinking about how bad the game was going without realizing how great the last couple minutes were.

Then Rice steals an inbound and Hill’s shot from half court narrowly misses and the game is in overtime. Then, in overtime, Illinois steamrolls Michigan as if the first 35 minutes of the game never happened. The 7-0 run Illinois rode to overtime is suddenly a 21-2 run and the Illini win the damn game 64-52. I’m still stunned. Michigan scored just 2 points in the final 8:13 of the game, and that was on free throws… with 14 seconds left… of what was already a laugher… in overtime. 

John Groce compared his team to Seabiscuit after the game, specifically how the famed horse’s trainer attributed his 1938 win against War Admiral to heart — the desire to win.

“Three minutes to go and you’re down 7, you gotta go now… that’s not about execution, it’s about heart,” he said.

Egwu expounded on the heart the Illini (17-8, 7-5) showed after the game, giving credit to the younger players for taking on leadership roles within the team that transcend their class.

“Our young guys are playing like they don’t have 2-3 years left, and that’s big,” the senior center said.

You can’t mince words about what the first 35 minutes were for Illinois: Pure shit. But absolutely everything at the end of the game was fantastic. After letting Spike Albrecht and Max Biefeldt run rampant, Illinois needed defensive stops. It got stops. After shooting as poorly as 27% with 6 minutes to play, Illinois needed baskets. It got baskets. After Rice went 37 minutes without much of a contribution, Illinois needed him to step up. It got Rayvonte Rice, the dude who won the Braggin’ Rights game almost singlehandedly.

This is what tournament teams do. So throw out everything before the final 10 minutes. In the final 10, Illinois was 8/12 on field goal shooting, Rice scored all 4 of his points and grabbed 3 rebounds and 2 steals, Egwu scored all 6 of his points, and Nunn scored 10 of his 21 total points. Those are the kind of performances that are game-winning against any opponent. What happened at the end of the Michigan game is what good teams, tournament teams, do when crunch time hits and everything is on the line.

On a more basic level, though, Illinois didn’t just play like a tournament team at the end of the game, it played like a team. Period. The little things that win a basketball game that weren’t happening, like taking good shots, making the most of scoring opportunities off turnovers, switching on ball screens and closing down the shooter, all those things started to fall into place in the final 10 minutes.

“They played like their head was being held under water,” Groce said.

Maybe it shouldn’t take that kind of near-death experience for Illinois to execute on the little things, but you can’t argue with the result. It’s been a long season already for Illinois, and those 8 losses have looked pretty bad at times. But things are trending up, and if this win against Michigan serves as an analogy for the way the Illini finish the season, I don’t think Groce, the players, or any fan could complain with the heart the team has.

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