The song remains the same for Illinois, as a 5-point lead with 3:20 left in the ballgame evaporated and Indiana came away with an 80-74 win in Champaign on Sunday. This marks the third time Illinois has lost a late lead against a quality win this season (Oregon and Michigan representing the other two) and a new high-water point for fan frustration.
The breaking point came at 2:18 when Nnanna Egwu picked up his 5th foul. Despite the fact Illinois was ahead 72-70 at that moment and despite the fact Egwu had not played very well (2 rebounds, no points, no blocks) and Leron Black was having his best game in orange and blue, when Egwu headed to the bench it just felt like the death knell of the game. Sure enough, Indiana finished the game on a 10-2 run, capitalizing on a missed tip-in from Black, a turnover by Malcolm Hill, and missed threes from each of the best Illini shooters on the night.
Head coach John Groce didn’t hide his emotions after the game, but he certainly wasn’t as disappointed in this loss as he has been in previous games where Illinois has failed to close out. He made no excuses for the way the game ended, but seemed happy with the decisions his players made to get to the final whistle.
“This one is disappointing. We fought hard, played well…we just didn’t win this one,” Groce said. “The difference between tonight and Northwestern game was just a couple of plays.”
Illinois had started the game as hot as ever, with Kendrick Nunn going on a 9-0 run all by himself to open the game. Nunn kept up his high level of play from the Northwestern game and Ahmad Starks elevated his play as well. The duo were 11-19 from three and accounted for more than half of Illinois’s scoring on the day, with Nunn scoring 24 and Starks notching a career-high 19 points.
The offensive fireworks provided by Nunn and Starks allowed Illinois to counterpunch Indiana’s own explosiveness. After starting the game hot, opening up 14-3, the Hoosiers heated up and tore ahead to 34-23 lead. But Illinois remained composed and finished the first half down just 38-34.
Following a good week of practice, according to Groce, Black was everywhere for Illinois. He came up with a huge block at 12:55 in the second half that sparked a big run for Illinois, leading to an 11-0 run with threes from Starks, Malcolm Hill, and layups by Hill and Jaylon Tate. The run helped Malcolm Hill shake off an uncharacteristic first half and finish with 12 points, 5 boards, and 3 steals. Black would finish the game with 9 rebound and 8 points.
“Black is very reminiscent of Nunn and Hill at this time last year…starting to become trustworthy,” Groce said. “He’s really coming on and I’m proud of the way he’s playing. He’s had to earn it. Tonight he earned his minutes.”
With Black playing up to the expectations many had for him upon enrolling at Illinois and the entire Illini team playing great in stretches against Indiana, it’s not hard to intuit where Groce’s enthusiasm after the loss comes from. It’s certainly hard for many fans to reciprocate, however.
The final swing in momentum went to Indiana, and when Illinois relinquished the lead it built from that 11-0 run with 1:24, many fans headed for the exits. Things really started to go awry for the Illini after Egwu headed to the bench, though. Indiana coach Tom Crean said the Illinois center was as “versatile and valuable as any big,” but he was no doubt giddy when Egwu fouled Collin Hartman for his fifth.
Crean added that “Illinois is a really, really good team” even without Rayvonte Rice. But that will likely be little consolation for fans after watching another late lead vanish like a bad magic trick.