At halftime, there was already some talk about what losing to the Michigan Wolverines would do to Illinois' postseason hopes. Max Bielfeldt was killing the Illini in the paint, and there was no answer defensively from John Groce and the players. It was starting to look like a blown opportunity at home.
FAST FORWARD TO THE LAST 3 MINUTES OF THE GAME.
Illinois faced a 50-43 deficit with the ball. After moving the ball around the perimeter, Rayvonte Rice was found under the basket and scored his first basket of the game. Rice found foul trouble with under 10 minutes remaining and sat most of the second half, but was able to help orchestrate one of the best stretches of Illinois basketball we've seen all season (SPOILER ALERT).
After Rice's layup, Michigan's lead was cut to 50-45. Cue a crucial Michigan turnover, and the Illini had control of the ball again. Kendrick Nunn would hit a jumper to pull Illinois within 3 at the 2:10 mark, and the State Farm Center would come alive. Spike Albrecht would miss a 3 point jumper and Rice would grab the defensive rebound (one of 5 for the game). After a Michigan foul, Illinois would move the ball to a wide open Kendrick Nunn. Nunn would hit a 3 pointer that tied the game with 1:25 remaining in the game, and the fans would burst into their loudest cheer of the evening.
The game would be sent to overtime after some WONDERFUL defense by Nnanna Egwu on the inbound pass, quick hands and great position from Rayvonte Rice, and a well executed game-plan drawn up by Coach Groce. Coming off a 7-0 run in the second half, the Illini would finish the game on a 21-2 run and ultimately hold Michigan scoreless from the field. The last few minutes of regulation and all 5 minutes of overtime were by far the best we've seen the Illini play this season. A combination of stingy defense, and quality shot choices allowed Illinois to control the tempo and gain virtually all the momentum. But more importantly, a win now ranks Illinois at 7th in the conference. Here's a look at the current standings:
This win for the Illinois Fighting Illini (17-8, 7-5) really showed the character, drive, and toughness that the coaching staff has been talking about all year long. Beating Michigan (13-12, 5-7) by controlling the final few minutes of the game really shows that this team has turned a corner since January. Wonderful offensive efforts by Kendrick Nunn (21pts), Ahmad Starks (12pts), and Malcolm Hill (11pts) with the added dominance of the senior class proved that this team can make a run to the tournament in March.
And we'll back them every step of the way. Always have, always will.