Wow. That was something else. The Illini came out of the gates hot, leading 5-0 before Rutgers even woke up, but rest assured the Scarlet Knights were wide awake a few minutes later. They went on an incredible 18-3 run to push ahead by twelve, 24-12, and John Groce was forced to use his firs timeout. A late first-half run from Illinois closed the deficit to only three points going into the locker room 40-37, but it was the first time Rutgers had led a Big Ten opponent in over a calendar year. Malcolm Hill had eight points and Kendrick Nunn, who some thought wasn't going to play due to a hip contusion, only had three in the first half. There were Illini reporters asking on Twitter which was more fun, pulling out toe nails or watching this game, so yeah, that's how bad this one was at the break.
The orange and blue took their first lead of the second half when Maverick Morgan hit a mid-range jumper with 17 minutes left, and it was a very back-and-forth battle until Morgan hit another short-range shot with four minutes left in regulation to put the Illini up 71-70. Hill and Rutgers standout freshman Corey Sanders traded buckets and it was a one-point game with under a minute to play, a way-too-uncomfortably close game for Illinois at the RAC. That's when Sanders turned the corner and made an impressive bank shot to give the Scarlet Knights a 74-73 advantage, but Hill came right back to make a mid-range jumper and put the orange and blue back on top. Then Khalid Lewis made a crucial mistake by fouling Sanders with only eight seconds left in the game, but it was somewhat-forgivable because Sanders only hit one of his two free-throws and the game headed to overtime.
In the extra period the Illini came out hot and in command, with Coleman-Lands hitting a big three and Malcolm Hill getting to the free-throw line to put some distance between themselves and Rutgers, 86-79. But the Scarlet Knights came charging back yet again, and pulled to within two before Khalid Lewis missed a big free throw and Corey Sanders hit an incredible, fadeaway three at the buzzer in OT to send the game to a second extra session. Our reaction to that?
A;SFGHAS;DGHA;OSDHGFA;OISDFG;UABGF;KABSNG;KJABSD;LKFGS;KDBFNSDGIOUBAPS;OG— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 4, 2016
In double OT some stuff happened and Illinois had a chance to call a timeout on the final possession with the shot clock turned off, but declined to do so. Hill missed one of his classic step-back 15-footers and we were headed to, yes, a third overtime. You tell me which was better, Illinois-Rutgers or Kansas-Oklahoma.
In the third OT Illinois finally took over, with Kendrick Nunn hitting a big three-pointer and grabbing a big rebound before the Scarlet Knights started playing the foul game and the Fighting Illini eventually came away with the win. They scored over 100 points for the first time in two years.
Malcolm finished with 34 points, but two of the leaders for the Illini in this game were undeniably Coleman-Lands, who finished with a career-high 26 points, and Maverick Morgan who played big minutes and totaled a career-high 20 points of his own.
Here's what we learned from the game.
1. Nobody won this game
OK, yeah, Illinois won, but in a game like this one, where two sub-.500 teams are battling for twelfth place in the Big Ten, nobody wins a three-hour contest. Rutgers was 2-25 in conference play coming into this game. I don't even know what else to say about this one. Let's just take the win and forget about how we got there.
2. The future may be bright for D.J. Williams
This enormous and ridiculous string of injuries that Groce's team has suffered does have one positive angle to it -- the freshmen are getting more playing time, and they're looking pretty good. Aaron Jordan has started a few games this season and just came off a season-high eight points against Wisconsin, and obviously Jalen Coleman-Lands has been a crucial element on this team. But tonight it was D.J. Williams' turn to shine, playing double-digit minutes and scoring six points while also collecting a few rebounds and a block. Those obviously aren't gaudy numbers, but for a freshman who hasn't seen much playing time this year it's encouraging to see the potential that Williams has within him.
3. Wanted: a defense
Everything about this game, specifically the first 30 minutes or so, pointed to just how horrible a defense the Illini currently have. Obviously some of this is due to the lack of depth and size, but take a look at some of these superlatives. As mentioned above, Rutgers led at the half against a conference opponent for the first time in a year. They shot nearly 50 percent from the field in the first half. They had nearly double the second-chance points that the Illini did. Eddie Jordan's crew averages 66 points per game, tonight they scored 101 (obviously inflated because of the two overtimes, however). These just aren't the numbers you should be surrendering to a 6-16 team like Rutgers, and Groce's squad could never seem to get a crucial stop when they needed to.
Enjoy the following statistics, presented to you by the classic TRIPLE-OT BUMP: