It’s pretty evident the Indiana Hoosiers entered Friday’s contest against the Illinois Fighting Illini with revenge on their mind. The last time these two faced off the game ended with the Orange Krush spilling onto the floor when Illinois senior Tyler Griffey finished a lay-up as time expired to give the Illini the 74-72 victory. In their rematch at the United Center, Illinois failed to conjure up some upset magic, as the Hoosiers won 80-64.
Right off the tip you could hear a surprisingly big Indiana showing in the Chicago audience, which was slightly more of a hostile environment than expected for Illinois.
First team All-Big Ten Hoosiers Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller were held off the scoreboard halfway through the first with Indiana shooting 4-12 and Illinois shooting 2-10. Even with their stars quiet early on, Indiana led 12-5. Indiana coach Tom Crean is proud of his players overcoming adversity.
“I think we have a team like we have had that’s answered the bell all year long,” Crean said. “Responded from tough games. And sitting where we’re sitting, the team has been the headline maker.”
Indiana’s tough perimeter defense led by Oladipo forced Illinois to stay behind the three-point line and it really stalled their offensive attack leading to some off-balanced shots.
Oladipo really locked down Illini senior Brandon Paul on the eve of his game-winning buzzer beater against Minnesota. Paul finished with 16 points but only shot 2-13. Oladipo says stopping Paul was the key to the Hoosiers victory.
“It was huge,” Oladipo said. “But again I couldn’t have done a great job without my teammates. Cody [Zeller] did a great job of blitzing. And I wasn’t the only one, Will [Sheehey] guarded him and Remy [Abell] as well. He’s a great player and we tried to slow him down.
Zeller finally came alive scoring eight quick points which ignited a Hoosier onslaught for an 8-0 after senior Christian Watford drilled two free throws with 8:44 left in the half to give Indiana a 17-5 lead.
Illinois came out looking livelier for the second half scoring ten points in three and half minutes, including seven quick points from sophomore guard Tracy Abrams. Illinois matched their first half total just over eight minutes into the first half as both offenses caught fire.
“I think it was a tale of two halves,” Groce said. “I thought our defense was really, really good in the first half,” Groce then added, “Second half it flipped. I thought our offense was really good and defensively we weren’t able to stop them.”
Zeller carried over his strong play from the first half and freshmen Yogi Ferrell helped carry the offense in the second half. Ferrell finished with 12 points.
Indiana’s timely shots kept the Illini’s comeback at bay as the team’s started to trade blows. After a Bertrand putback, Indiana sophomore Remy Abbell hit a three pointer which was immediately answered by Illini’s Richardson, only for Watford to answer yet again. Indiana led 56-43 with 11:43 remaining.
Illinois was finally able to cut their deficit to single digits with after Richardson made two free throws making it a 60-52 Indiana lead.
The Hoosiers didn’t keep it close for too long as they shot out on a 5-0 run with Watford adding yet his second three pointer of the contest with 5:24 left to play.
Oladipo didn’t have it going all afternoon long but his electrifying transition slam got the stadium rocking and put an exclamation point on the contest, giving the Hoosiers a 69-56 lead with four minutes left. Oladipo finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Oladipo managed to top his first slam by finishing a 360 two-hand dunk to give the Hoosiers a 78-60 lead with 1:37 left.
“I knew I was gonna do something when I caught it but I don’t know it was just a last second thought,” Oladipo said. “I thought about it when I was in the air, I turned around while I was in the air. And no, that’s not my best dunk.”
Indiana will move on to face the winner of the Michigan-Wisconsin game this afternoon. Crean already has his sights on the NCAA tournament and he thinks his team has done enough to clinch a No.1 seed.
“I would hope we have done enough,” Crean said. “I think when you have the league the way that it is and you win it outright the way that we did.”
Illinois will likely find themselves on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble despite the loss. Brandon Paul was still able to take positive away from the loss.
“The takeaway is if you compete at a high level, you can compete with anybody in the country,” Paul said. “I felt we came in with the mindset that we can win all of these games. We went through some rough stretches throughout the game and I felt like once we put two halves together we’ll be in good position.”
With the NCAA tournament quickly approaching, Illinois will have to learn how to put their two halves together soon.