Just five weeks ago, Illinois lost eight straight games in the Big Ten, a collapse that few teams in the nation could overcome. The Fighting Illini have won six of their last nine games since the losing streak and also since freshman Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were added to the starting lineup. Nunn and Hill have gotten most of the praise for the team’s resurgence. On Thursday, it was two juniors who came through in the clutch as Illinois beat Indiana 64-54.
The biggest moment of the game came with under two and a half minutes remaining with Illinois up 53-52.
The Illini haven’t exactly been a model of late game execution this season, failing to hold onto second half leads against Oregon, Northwestern, and Iowa just to name a few. With a chance at the NCAA Tournament on the line, junior point guard Tracy Abrams decided it was time to step up.
Abrams caught the ball on the left wing and paused for a second, thinking about whether or not to pull the trigger. When Hoosier guard Yogi Ferrell peeled off of him and instead trailed Nunn on the baseline, Abrams didn’t need to think twice.
Abrams, who is just a 28% three pointer shooter on the year, drained the three pointer to give Illinois the 56-52 lead with 2:07 left.
It was the symbol of the afternoon. Ferrell was left with two choices, to cover Abrams for three, or to cut off the hot Kendrick Nunn on the baseline. Most people in Ferrell’s position would’ve done the same exact thing, which is exactly why Abrams played with a chip on his shoulder.
“I’m positive all of the time,” Abrams said. “I’m a leader. I’m a captain. If I worried about the bad games that I had, what example is that to our younger guys?”
Abrams finished with 25 points, the second highest scoring total of his career and the first time he’s scored at least 20 points since December 21st.
Abrams was certainly an unlikely scoring source as he struggled throughout the Big Ten schedule, but he stuck to the basics.
Abrams shot the ball well, but his biggest threat was his ability to get inside. Abrams constantly attacked the basket and missed a few good looks there as he’s prone to do, but when he was able to convert it really made the difference. Abrams forced his way to the free throw line as well, shooting 7-9 there.
Abrams’s inside buckets and free throws nagged the Hoosiers, who settled for three point shots, many of which came off the dribble at the end of the shot clock. Indiana shot 6-20 from deep as their leading scorer Ferrell, who happened to be Abrams assignment on defense, was held to 14 points on 13 shot attempts.
Abrams was the best offensive player on the night, but Egwu continued to anchor the stout Illinois D.
Egwu had the tough task of stopping the mobile, wide freshman Noah Vonleh.
Vonleh was named Big Ten Freshman of the year after averaging 11.4 points and 9.1 rebounds on the season. You’ll probably see Vonleh get drafted in the top ten of next year’s NBA draft, but make no mistake about it, Egwu was the best big on the floor on Thursday.
Egwu tied a career high with five blocks. He wasn’t just deflecting the shots, he was smashing them onto the court.
Egwu played with aggression while avoiding foul trouble, a skill he’s finally started to hone in his third year in college. Egwu tends to get some slack for being soft, but he looked like a man out there today.
Don’t think for a second he didn’t have the snub of missing out on the Big Ten Defensive First Team on his mind.
Illinois played as a unit on the defensive end, slowing down the game and holding the Hoosiers to 35% shooting. That’s exactly how you win a game scoring only 64 points, something the Illini have accomplished seven times this season.
With Indiana in the rear view, Illinois is now tasked with facing the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines, a team they lost to by 31 points just nine days ago.
In that game, Michigan shot 16-23 from deep, led by Big Ten Player of the year Nik Stauskas, who shot 7-9 from deep.
Luckily for Illinois, coach John Groce doesn’t like losing to the same team twice. The Illini have won five of their last six games, including beating four opponents they lost to earlier in the season. Groce is a master strategist and there figures to be several changes in the gameplan this time around.
Groce said after the loss to Michigan that Illinois isn’t the type of team that can afford for any players to have an off night. On most nights, the Illini suffer several players who have off nights.
If Illinois can get their upperclassmen and their freshmen firing on all cylinders in the same game, a win against Michigan isn’t out of question. More importantly, they will have to do what they’ve relied upon lately—focus on the next game.
After the game, Groce was asked how his team would respond to the mental loss against Michigan.
“To do what they’ve done here late in the year after the losing streak, I think that’s the answer to the question,” Groce said. “You know, they’re on to the next one.”
The Fighting Illini lost eight straight games earlier in the season. Not only are they on the winning track, but they have the NCAA Tournament in their site. Now that’s something to be proud of.