Holding a 10-point lead over North Carolina State with 4:11 to go, Illini fans with even a marginal short-term memory would be excused for feeling anxious. Tuesday night, however, was different: the Illini were making a statement.
On Tuesday, the second half was utterly owned by the hosts and there would be no collapse, no confidence-killing overtime loss on this night. Illinois (5-3) saw out an 88-74 win in a game that felt much more important than just a late-November ACC-Big Ten Challenge contest.
Tuesday night was the official dedication of the newly remodeled State Farm Center. This is a wholly uninteresting event in relation to the basketball played, but it nearly filled the arena with 13,000-some fans. The difference between a full-ish State Farm Center and the mostly empty bowl Illinois played its first few home games in was stark and overwhelmingly apparent whenever the team gave fans something to actually cheer for.
It was an open question before the game how many cheer-able moments the Illini would provide fans in attendance, as well as the much larger crowd watching at home. In its last three games Illinois failed to take care of the ball well, shot poorly, made bad decisions at each end of the floor, and generally looked like a team destined for another disappointing season rather than the Tourney team it was expected to be. This all led to not unfair criticism of the coaching and only slightly hyperbolic claims of the season being lost already.
And thus, fans eagerly awaiting the departure of head coach John Groce likely revelled in schadenfreude in the first half. Groce stubbornly stuck with Jaylon Tate in the starting lineup and rotated players confusingly, such as keeping DJ Williams on the bench the entire half. A good start, inspired by solid defense and sloppy play from the Wolfpack, put Illinois in front, but the visitors marched back to keep the game tight throughout the half.
Against better opposition, such as teams like those played last week, the Illini would have found themselves in a hole. For the first half, Illinois shot just 34 percent, with Malcolm Hill misfiring entirely, 0-3 from the field. Nine turnovers negated the team’s 7 steals and advantage in field goal attempts (32-28). But NC State is not West Virginia or Florida State or even Winthrop and played an undisciplined half of its own, going to half ahead of the Illini with the slimmest of leads, 33-32.
In the second half, the team fans expected showed up. Suddenly, the Illini were a group of seasoned veterans that could take care of the ball, knock down shots, and play good defense. Even Groce seemed to adjust, starting what is likely his best lineup at half -- Tracy Abrams, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Hill, Leron Black, and Mike Thorne Jr. -- and using Jaylon Tate a grand total of zero minutes over the final 20.
Abrams, in particular, took over for Illinois. The senior played the role of “coach on the floor” with aplomb, marshalling his troops precisely, unafraid to call out mistakes with as much gusto as he gave praise. Though he only scored 7 of his 17 points in the second half, his impact was bigger than the stat sheet could show. His effort really helped bring Hill to life as well, which could not have been a bigger boost for the Illini. In the second half Hill put in 17 of his game-high 22 as well as 5 of his 9 rebounds and all 4 of his assists. Likewise, Coleman-Lands and Black were electric in the second half and finished the game with 11 and 15 points, respectively.
Forgive the cliche, but beating NC State was a true team effort. More than just Abrams’ orchestration, Hill’s revival, or JCL and Black on offense, the Illini thrived from the energy Te’Jon Lucas brought to the point guard position, Maverick Morgan gaining confidence in his rebounding, and Thorne playing tough in the post. The Illini turned the ball over just twice in the second half and, switching between zone, pack line, and straight man defense, denied Wolfpack guard (and likely NBA lottery pick) Dennis Smith Jr. from the field (0-4).
Considering the opponent, beating NC State (119 in RPI) is not as impressive as beating West Virginia (11) or Florida State (75) would have been. But after losing those games, and losing 3 in a row, this was the win Illinois needed. Now, the challenge is getting one of those signature wins: VCU (35 in RPI) awaits.