Yes, it looked for a while like Illinois might recapture the spirit
of Illini teams from 1999 and 2008 — winning close games against
higher seeded teams on the way to the championship game. Yes,
Illinois had several chances down the stretch to extend their late
lead. Yes, we hate — and I mean hate — when our favorite team loses,
especially to Michigan (I'll never get over 1989).
But as I sit on
press row watching Nebraska try to give up an 18-point second-half
lead to Ohio State, I must confess: I'm still smiling from ear to
ear. I'm still thrilled at the effort Illinois brought against a
much more talented Wolverine squad — one that throttled the Illini
by 31 points at home just 10 days earlier. That's right — 31 points.
No one loses at home by 31 points and even thinks a postseason run
of any tournament is a possibility. In March, 31-point home losses
usually translate into spring break trips to Daytona, not postseason
games in Dayton.
Someone forgot to tell coach Jon Groce and the Fighting Illini it
was time to roll over and play dead. Illinois looked every bit the
serious basketball team on Friday — one that played great defense
and made timely shots. The Illini fought with the passion of a
prizefighter, even though they found themselves trailing by 13
points early in the second half. And when freshman guard Kendrick
Nunn made a layup with about four minutes left in the game to give
Illinois a 61-58 lead, many in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indy
wondered if the Big Blue were going down!
In the end, it wasn't meant to be. Michigan had just enough to
move on to the semifinals on Saturday. But Illinois proved to anyone
paying attention that they are playing their best basketball of the
year and should be a team to be reckoned with in the NIT should they
receive a bid (I say lock it up).
Let me share with you seven "quick hits" observed Friday in Indy:
1. Illinois once
again played their best basketball when it mattered most, really
outfighting Michigan the last 14 minutes of the game. The feeling on
press row was that Illinois was close to being blown out again early
in the second half, but coach Groce and his staff steadied the team
and gave Michigan a real scare.
2. My heart breaks
for Tracy Abrams! Following the best game of his career on Thursday,
the junior from Chicago once again played his heart out and had a
chance at the game-winner with less than a second left. The teardrop
was just short and no one felt worse than Abrams.
[to top of second column]
3. I love the
progress of the two freshman starters — Malcolm Hill and Kendrick
Nunn. Both had really strong Big Ten tournaments, and I get pretty
excited about what a strong, deep team Illinois should have next
season. Yes, the Illini lose seniors John Ekey and Joe Bertrand, but
transfers Darius Paul, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby will join
freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke, and it's not a stretch to
see a consistent 10- or 11-man rotation throughout the entire
4. I have really
enjoyed watching the late-season growth and development of Illini
center Nnanna Egwu. He was a force defensively throughout much of
the year, but really played a lot better and stronger the last three
to four weeks. He was an impact player this weekend in Indy even
though he didn't score a ton, and hopefully he has gained some
much-deserved respect from Illini nation.
5. Michigan is
good, but only as good as their 3-point shooting allows them to be.
The Wolverines went cold from 3 in the second half and didn't seem
6. Illinois played
a ton of zone defense in the second half, which would seem to be the
last thing you would want to do against a team like Michigan. Some
wondered if it was foolishness on steroids, but it worked like a
charm. It slowed down Michigan and allowed Illinois to crawl back
into the game. Great strategic move by coach Groce!
7. I'm still a
Chicago guy. Move the tourney back to the Windy City permanently!
Oh, by the way, Nebraska did blow that 18-point second-half lead.
Ohio State just won by four points and will play Michigan on
[By LDN staff]