NEAR WEST SIDE- The Fighting Illini made their annual appearance at the United Center on Saturday night, but this year the outcome wasn’t as pleasant as the previous UC games under John Groce.
This time around, the Illini fell to Oregon 77-70 thanks to lackluster offense and poor defense down the stretch. The Illini jumped out to a 16-point lead and shot 50-percent from the field in the early going.
The unraveling of the Illini began shortly afterwards. The Illini let their early 16-7 lead turn into a 28-23 Oregon run to close out the first half. Illinois led 39-35 at halftime.
But in the second half the Ducks took flight (no pun intended) and outscored the Fighting Illini 42-31 over the final 20 minutes. Despite getting double figures from senior guard Rayvonte Rice (led all scorers with 29 points), and senior center Nnanna Egwu (Naa-nuh Egg-woo, 10 points) it wasn’t enough to push the Illini to victory.
Illinois finished the game shooting 35.9-percent from the field (23-for-64), and 36.8-percent from the three-point line (7-of-19). Their opponents however shot 46.2-percent and 41.7-percent respectively.
Their defense had difficulty containing the Ducks who got double figure efforts from freshman forward Dillon Brooks (24 points), senior guard Joseph Young (15), junior forward Dwayne Benjamin (13), freshman guard Ahmaad Rorie (11), and junior forward Elgin Cook (10).
“We didn’t finish the game“ said coach Groce in his post game press conference, “those are cardinal sins” he added.
Some of those cardinal sins the Illini committed included getting outscored in the paint (40-20), and allowing the rebounds to be even (40) for both teams despite the tremendous size advantage that the Illini had.
Illinois was also outscored on second chance points (13-8), fast break points (17-6), and points off the bench (19-14). Despite the Illini’s shortcomings, Groce also gave the Ducks the credit they deserved.
“At the end of the day….. I thought it was the best (game Oregon) played and I give them a lot of credit” Groce said.
But at the same time, he still managed to praise his players and keep things positive when all was said and done.
“I thought we played –to be honest with you- much better (then we did on Tuesday against Villanova). I thought we did some really good things with 17 assists, 23 field goals, I thought we shared the ball, (and) it’s the best communication I’ve heard from the sideline with our team defensively in quite some time” Groce said.
Despite his attempts to keep his team -and the Illini fan base- upbeat, the reality is that Illinois has now lost two in-a-row and three of their last four. They also drop to 1-3 against power conference teams this season. The Illini’s record at the Madhouse on Madison now stands at 35-13.
The next stretch of games gets pretty tricky. First up is Hampton making a trip to Champaign on Wednesday night. As much as that could be a “pick-me-up” or “give me” game for the Illini, it could also be a trap game if they’re not careful.
Then on December 20th is the all-important “Braggin Rights” game against Missouri (another power conference team) in St. Louis. A series in which the Illini has always had to grind out victories.
The players understand that they need to correct things now if they want continued success this season. “(We need to) watch film, figure out what we did that was negative…. Correct (those mistakes in practice, and) do what we got to do to get better” said Ewgu after the game.
Making those corrections will require a full team effort. Follow me on Twitter @GabeSalgado82