The Illinois Fighting Illini once again faltered down the stretch, this time falling to New Mexico State, 74-69, in a marquee matchup at the United Center in Chicago.
Senior Zach Lofton looked like a next-level player for the Aggies, scoring 23 points and hitting countless big shots down the stretch for his team.
Freshman Trent Frazier matched Lofton’s big shots with his own for Illinois, but he failed to tie the game on the Illini’s final possession. He scored 13 points off the bench.
In his return from an elbow injury, Black scored 17 points and collected eight rebounds off the bench, and he started the second half.
Despite early game struggles throughout the season for Illinois, the Illini looked confident coming out of the gate Saturday.
The Illini jumped out to an 8-2 lead, but the Aggies responded with a 20-2 run that allowed them to skyrocket to a 22-10 advantage with under eight minutes remaining in the first half.
Black picked up two fouls in only three minutes of play in the half, which caused him to be essentially sidelined for the remainder of the frame. This resulted in Illinois’ interior defense taking a hit, and New Mexico State went to work on the smaller frontcourt of Illinois.
Illinois eventually ended its five-minute scoring drought, getting balanced scoring all around at the half, but its inability to consistently get stops on the defensive end kept it at bay.
Because of this, the Illini managed to only trade baskets with the Aggies and were still trailing 38-26 at half as the 20-2 run made earlier in the game by them plagued the Illini.
Lofton led all scorers at the half with 13 points. He was followed by Eli Chuta who had seven points off the bench.
Illinois got the fans at the United Center on their feet when they scored the first 10 points of the second half. Sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas sparked the run with six points to bring the Illini within two.
After New Mexico State split a pair of free throws, junior guard Aaron Jordan tied the game with a three from the left wing. He had seven points only five minutes into the second half.
The Aggies found themselves in foul trouble before the midway point of the half, which allowed the Illini to get in the bonus and take their first lead of the game after a pair of Jordan free throws.
A pull-up three off a pick-and-roll from Frazier gave Illinois a 48-43 lead on the following possession.
Lofton made a very tough three-pointer a couple possessions later to reclaim the lead for New Mexico State, but a fadeaway jumper from Black while being fouled allowed the Illini to get a 55-53 advantage. This capped off 12 second-half points for Black.
Nine-straight made shots from the Aggies allowed them to jump up 65-59 on the Illini. Lofton had 23 points at this time, continuing to make clutch shots.
Another huge shot from beyond-the-arc for Frazier cut the deficit to three for Illinois at the third media timeout of the half. He followed up this shot with another big three from NBA-range, tying the game at 65.
After trading baskets, the two teams were tied at 69 with 33.7 seconds left in the game.
A costly turnover from Jordan allowed A.J. Harris to get fouled and make the layup in transition to take a 72-69 lead with 23.1 seconds remaining.
After hitting big shots down the stretch, Frazier missed two critical free throws to try to cut the deficit to one. The Illini were forced to being fouling, and Compton gave Brad Underwood’s team one more chance with 10.9 seconds left after missing the free throw to put away the game.
After the Underwood timeout, Frazier pulled up from two-feet behind the NBA three-point line and the shot nailed the back iron.
Chuha hit both of his free throws on the ensuing possession to close out the 74-69 win.
Illinois (8-5) will not be back in action until Dec. 23rd when they travel down south to face Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game.