53 days is a long time. With Nebraska in town, it’s been 53 days since Illinois last won a home game.
It was an unfamiliar site to see Illinois take on Nebraska with the Cornhuskers sitting in sixth place and the Illini looking up from the very bottom. With 12 losses on the year, the NCAA tournament has been out of the picture for Illinois for a while now—someone might have to tell them that.
If Illinois has nothing to play for, I sure couldn’t tell. The Illini got some revenge on the Huskers and snapped a five-game home losing streak to come away with the 60-49 victory.
Illinois has now won back-to-back games for the first time since the start of Big Ten play. The reason for this sudden improvement of play starts with Kendrick Nunn.
Fresh off receiving Big Ten freshman of the week honors, Nunn kept his hot hand going.
Nunn didn’t have the flashiest box score, but his presence was undeniable. Nunn shot out the gate with 10 points on just three shots. All game long Nunn hit big jumpers, made the right pass, and kept active on the defensive end.
With Illinois up three points 12 minutes into the second half, Nunn launched a deep three that looked wildly off—but when you’ve got it going, things just go your way. Somehow the ball found its way into the basket with a little help from the glass. All Nunn could do after hitting the fortuitous shot was smile
“I think I bring a lot of energy and toughness to the floor on both sides,” Nunn said. “I just bring swagger to the team. That’s what I feel like my role is.”
Nunn wasn’t the only one making plays, as the entire team looked eager to play. Groce went as far to say that the team’s effort was “inspiring.”
Illinois played suffocating defense throughout the night, holding the Husker’s leading scorer Terran Petteway to 13 points on 5-18 shooting. The Illini’s defensive focus and effort caused Petteway and company to air mail a number of shots.
The Illini chased, lunged, and clawed their way to loose balls, playing with what looked like untapped energy.
Up 59-49 with a minute left, Illinois senior Jon Ekey dove into spectators to get the ball to Nnanna Egwu.
“I felt bad,” Ekey said laughing. “I tackled one of the cheerleaders. I hope she’s okay.”
It’s not the type of energy and effort you’d expect to see from a team with no postseason aspirations.
Before this season, some expected Groce to pull a rabbit out of a hat and magically overcome the losses from last year’s team. When it comes down to it, still, nothing has changed.
Illinois will fall short of pleasing the fans that wanted another NCAA tournament win, but Groce has succeeded in creating a culture that simply wants to play basketball. With a young team, things could be worse.