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Maryland 92, Illinois 91: What we learned

Sometimes, basketball is cruel.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois dropped its second-straight Big Ten game tonight, this one in overtime to Maryland. It was another heartbreaking loss for the young Illini, and their third in a row after starting off the season with six straight wins, albeit over lesser competition.

Illinois trailed by 22 points after a terrible first half with 17:26 remaining in the game, but they were able to fight their way back into the game and take the lead. But, Illinois wasn’t able to hold on and ended up losing in overtime.

Here are some top takeaways from the game.

A tale of two halves

Illinois was dreadful in the first half in all areas. They allowed the Terrapins to shoot a healthy 73 percent from the field, conceding many uncontested layups and three-point shots. The Illini were equally inefficient on offense. The Illini couldn’t get the offense working and lacked any spark. This was about as poor a first half as a team could have. Illinois trailed 45-26.

The first half left Brad Underwood so upset that he made his team reset for the second half.

Oh, and Underwood punched a trash can.

Brad Underwood’s motivation tactics and halftime adjustments worked. Illinois was the clear superior team in the second half. Illinois outscored Maryland 65-47. The Illini offense found its mojo shooting 72 percent in the second half, including 6-of-11 from three-point range.

It was a different team from the one seen in the first half. Mark Alstork, Leron Black and Trent Frazier all played tremendously in a 22-point comeback that allowed Illinois to take the lead late. There are huge positives to take away from that effort.

But, the first half did happen, and it counted on the scoreboard despite Illinois’ halftime “reset”. The Illini also made key mistakes down the stretch, including the most egregious error with four seconds left in regulation.

Illinois led by two points and attempted to inbound the ball on its baseline after Underwood called a timeout. Maryland covered the play very well and Da’Monte Williams tried to force a deep half-court heave pass that sailed out of bound all the way at the other baseline. Maryland got an offensive baseline out of bounds play and scored on a tip-in to send the game to overtime.

Losing in that scenario is terrible. What would have been an amazing comeback was ruined not by just that play, but other mistakes Illinois made down the stretch. It was a incredibly heartbreaking end, but not one that Illinois could say they didn’t deserve after their first half performance.

Mark Smith has disappeared

The freshman guard was one of the best, if not the best, Illinois players in the first few games of the season. He was scoring at will and drawing fouls. In his first six games, Smith was averaging 12 points per game.

But as the competition has stepped up, Smith has been rendered totally ineffective. His defense has been poor and, after drawing 28 free throws in the first six games, Smith has not taken a trip to the line in his last three games.

In the last two games Smith has only played 24 total minutes and scored five points.

Freshman often struggle when teams begin to play more serious competition. No one expected Smith to continue to produce at such a great level, but this drop off Smith is very troubling. It may be time for Smith to come off the bench and allow one of the many productive bench players to enter the starting lineup.

Illinois is a Jekyll and Hyde team on defense

When Illinois is locked in on defense, it can be a very effective defensive team. On the other hand, this team gives up far too many easy looks to the other team and can be weak in the defensive interior while be slow on rotations.

This game against Maryland was a good example of the hot/cold nature of the Illini defense.

Illinois had 16 steals and forced Maryland into 25 turnovers, but the unit gave up 92 points on nearly 60 percent shooting and 44 percent shooting from three. The defensive ability is there for the team despite the clear weakness in the paint, but we just aren’t seeing it consistently over the course of a game.

Aaron Jordan needs more shots

Jordan continued his unreal shooting tonight. Jordan put up 15 points and actually lowered his NCAA leading three-point shooting percentage to 65.7 percent after hitting three out of five long balls.

Despite Jordan’s shooting rise, he is still coming off the bench for Illinois and is only averaging 5.89 shots per game. And despite being the best three-point shooter by percentage in the nation, he is only shooting 3.89 threes per game.

Illinois and Brad Underwood need to find a way to up his shooting volume without killing his percentage. He is not a ball handler who can create his own shots, so Illinois needs to find a way to maximize his shooting in this offense and call some more off-ball screen plays for him. Jordan has become an elite shooter.

It’s time to let the shooter shoot.