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Keon on fire

Illinois ran into a 5’ 5” buzzsaw Monday night named Keon Johnson. The little man played very big to help Winthrop knock off the Illini 84-80 in an overtime thriller.

With three-and-a-half to play, Illinois (4-1) took a 10-point lead, its largest of the night, on a Jaylon Tate three pointer. From there, however, Johnson was the show. He went on an incredible 7-0 run on his own over the next two minutes to put Winthrop (3-1) within one shot of tying the game. A wild drive to the basket that left Malcolm Hill without one shoe and Illinois with a missed lay up sent Winthrop hustling down the court where Xavier Cooks, who had airballed a deep shot earlier in the half, drained a three to tie the game.

Illinois coach John Groce screamed directions to his team as they brought the ball up court, signalling a play where star guard Malcolm Hill would drive the lane and shoot a jump shot, almost identical to the play his team ran to no effect before the halftime buzzer. As regulation ticked to its conclusion, Hill drove, shot, and found a similar outcome as his first half effort.

In the extra period, Tavin Prescott put Winthrop in front only for Tracy Abrams to answer. Johnson, fighting a leg cramp, hit another layup, then Prescott stripped Jaylon Tate and put his team ahead by 4. The Illini would fight for the final 3:23 of the game, but the effort would be in vain.

The final stats paint a picture of a very even contest between Illinois and Winthrop. The two teams tied or nearly matched one another in most counting stats: field goals (30 vs. 30), threes (10 vs. 11), rebounds (35 vs. 32), steals (4 vs. 5), turnovers (22 vs. 22), and fouls (21 vs. 21). But two stats stand out above the rest and highlight where Illinois came short: free throws (14/17 vs. 9/16) and time with the lead (4:32 vs. 37:44).

This pair of lopsided stats portray the biggest weakness of the Illini on Monday, their lack of a killer instinct. To the latter, when you lead a game for all but 4:32 (most of which came in overtime) and blow a 10-point lead with 3 minutes to go, you need to close it out. Simple as that. Had Illinois made its free throws, however, this game would not have been in doubt—Keon Johnson and his superhuman 38-point effort or not.

Illinois can look back at this game and find positives, such as Hill’s 14 points and 9 rebounds, Abrams’ 17 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block, Michael Finke’s 18 points, or Tate’s 9 points. But it’s the missed opportunities, the free throws, the fouls, the turnovers, that will haunt the team. If Winthrop is, indeed, an NCAA Tourney team, as predicted, this loss might not be so haunting. But Illinois has to win, especially in close contests like this, for that to matter at all.

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