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A Requiem for Illinois-Rutgers Basketball

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Let’s exorcise the demons of this young hoops series.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois is 4-1 all time vs Rutgers, but the record does not tell the whole story. This is the story of the epic battles between Illinois and Rutgers, and how those battles provide context for the recent landscape of Illini Basketball.

I want to give fair warning before we proceed any further: This seemingly innocent Illinois-Rutgers series is a tale of nostalgia, confusion, heartbreak and hope.

Game #1

Nov. 26, 2005

No. 15 Illinois (26-7, 11-5) defeats Rutgers (19-14, 7-9) 77-57

Illinois defeats Rutgers by 20 to move to 5-0 and win the South Padre Invitational over Thanksgiving Break. This win and hot start come off the heels of the NCAA runner-up finish to North Carolina the year before. Three days later, the Illini would get a small slice of revenge as they defeated UNC in Chapel Hill, 68-64.

Game #2

Feb. 3, 2015

Illinois (19-14, 9-9) defeats Rutgers (10-22, 2-16) 66-54

Nearly 10 years have passed since their last meeting, and the Illini have failed to eclipse the 25-win mark during that period. The sparse success and struggling opponent draws a mere crowd of 12,838. This was the lowest State Farm Center/Assembly Hall attendance for a regular season Big Ten game since January 23rd, 1999 when Illinois fell 65-61 to Penn State. This is Illinutgers (see what we did there?).

Game #3

Feb. 3, 2016

Illinois (15-19, 5-13) defeats Rutgers (7-25, 1-17) 110-101 in a 3 OT Thriller

Exactly one year later the Fighting Illini and Scarlet Knights play what can only be described as the best-worst college basketball game of all-time at the RAC in Piscataway. Illinois was 2-7 in B1G play and Rutgers was 0-9 entering the contest. The Illini just needed a win, preferably an easy win, but any kind of win would do. The RAC would prove to be no place for easy wins.

Malcolm Hill and Corey Sanders traded clutch go-ahead baskets at the end of regulation. Then, with the Illini up a point, Corey Sanders had two free throws to win it with 3 seconds left in the game. He split them. Overtime.

This is when things start getting silly. This is when Illinois-Rutgers is truly born. The Illini are up 3 with the clock running out in OT, and Corey Sanders does this:

How? Why? Why are we in double OT with Rutgers? Why are we stressing a game against a winless opponent? Something is wrong. What universe is this?

Somewhere in late double OT, the embarrassment faded away, and we all realized we were witnessing greatness. We had time to accept that the outcome was irrelevant, and we just tried to enjoy the madness. We rooted for more overtime — and we got more overtime.

The Illini pulled away in the third overtime period. Both teams scored over 100 points. Malcolm Hill had 32 points and 14 rebounds for the Illini. Corey Sanders had 39 points and 12 assists for Rutgers. Maverick Morgan and Jalen Coleman-Lands put up career-highs of over 20 points. The box score for this game is ridiculous. It was a beautiful, undisciplined, offensive explosion.

Game #4

Feb. 16, 2016

Illinois (15-19, 5-13) defeats Rutgers (7-25, 1-17) 82-66

The Illini would also win the highly anticipated rematch played in Champaign less than two weeks later. It never had a chance to live up to the hype of its predecessor.

Game #5

March 4, 2017

Rutgers (15-18, 3-15) defeats Illinois (20-15, 8-10) 62-59

The Illini thought they had avoided the upset from Rutgers a year ago, but the haunted grounds of the RAC never forget to enact their revenge. Illinois needed a win to keep its NCAA tourney hopes alive. They had done the hard part by winning five of their last six, including games against NCAA Tournament-bound Northwestern and Michigan State. They were going to make it back. All they had to do was beat Rutgers.

And that was that. The season was over. The coach was fired. The program commenced a rebuild. All because of Rutgers. It was unfathomable.

Maybe this is how it had to be. Maybe Rutgers saved Illinois from themselves. Without Rutgers, maybe they make the tournament, retain Groce, and float in mediocrity for the next 5 years. Maybe, thanks to Rutgers, they were forced to hire a new coach, with new players, and a new system, who will take Illinois back to where it was when they first met Rutgers on the basketball court.

Game No. 6 is tonight in Champaign.

Game No. 7 is Feb. 25 at the RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey.