The game may prove to be more costly to Sparty than just the one
game in the loss column. Superstar and leader of the team Draymond
Green had a night that he'd just soon forget. He entered with
stomach flu, got two quick fouls, spouted off to the ref, picked up
No. 3 with a technical, scored only five points, then collided with
one of the Illini players and may have badly injured his knee. No
reports on his condition were available at posting time.
give you the stats that prove Illinois won the game, but it would be
virtually impossible to describe the extent to which both teams went
to make this one of the worst games I have ever personally witnessed
… and that's saying something.
Of course, Brandon Paul led the way (where would the Illini be
this season without his emergence?) with 18 points, nine rebounds,
five assists, and I think I spotted him tumbling with Jesse White's
crew at halftime! D.J. Richardson grinded his way to nine points,
and the Illini got a huge lift of six points off the bench from
freshman Myke Henry! And freshman point guard Tracy Abrams hit what
was arguably the biggest shot of the game when he connected for 3
from the top of the key to tie the game at 40 with only 2:11 to
play. Just three free throws accounted for all the scoring the rest
of the way.
But that's not the half of it. Check out the mystifying box score
and you will scratch and shake your head wondering how it is even
possible that the Illini won this game. Illinois was outrebounded
51-32 by the giant Spartans, who got 23 of those on the offensive
glass. And Illinois survived that to still win? The reason: Both
teams scored only 13 second-chance points. The Illini shot only 33
percent from the field but limited Sparty to 24 percent (MSU's
lowest of the season as well as their lowest point total). The
reason: gutsy defense for most of the game. Illinois shot a
disgusting 53 percent from the free-throw line and it almost bit
them. The reason it didn't: They scored only one less point from the
line while only getting five more chances (usually Big Ten home
teams have a larger disparity than that, but I'm not going to get
And on and on it goes. I believe that this win marked only the
second time in Illinois history that the Illini have beaten two
teams ranked in the top 10 during the regular season (they beat No.
5 OSU back on Jan. 10). Be that as it may, I have no idea how they
pulled this one out. I believe that MSU had at least three shots in
the final minute to steal the win, but Illinois refused to fold,
hung tough and may have salvaged a season-saving win. That's true
especially when you factor in the last three games … all
disheartening and very disappointing losses to Penn State, Wisconsin
at home and the debacle in Minnesota.
[to top of second column]
So what does it all mean? A quick glance at the league standings
shows that Illinois knocked MSU out of first place last night and
jumped themselves past IU into a tie for fourth place with Purdue.
IF teams keep knocking each other out, which is what I expect, the
Illini have the chance to sneak up a little higher. You'd like to
have two or three of those recent games back, but I guess everybody
could say that. If Wisconsin shoots like they did last night at Penn
State in Champaign, then they take the loss there. Of course, they
couldn't miss, so it's a moot point.
I do think it means that the crown is still OSU's or MSU's to
lose. With last night's win, Illinois moves to 16-6 on the season
and 5-4 in conference play. If you're scoring at home, Illinois was
4-4 at the end of January last season. In 2009-2010 they were 5-3,
and in 2008-2009 they were 5-3. So, as you can see, it all depends
on what they do at the crossroads, which is right now.
Since this team just won yet another close game, they seem to
have a moxie that recent squads did not. Even though they've been
playing with huge expectations on their shoulders and not scoring a
lot of points, they have still found ways to win. What will happen
if the lids come off those hoops?
Unfortunately, after Sunday's home game with Northwestern,
they've got some brutal road trips to make. They still have to play
at Indiana, at Michigan, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin. It does not
present a hopeful picture, but as they say -- anything can happen.
At this juncture the Illini are staying alive, and maybe soon the
shots will start to fall.
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
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