On the bright side, Michael Finke had another great game, including a game-defining play with less than 10 seconds left.
The junior forward sunk a three-pointer with eight seconds remaining in the game, and he was fouled. Illinois held a two-point lead over Nebraska on the road after the completion of the four-point play.
But Finke’s late-game heroics did not seal the deal for Illinois’ first Big Ten win of the season.
James Palmer Jr. threw up a three-pointer with two seconds left and swished it, giving the Cornhuskers the one-point advantage. Illinois guard Trent Frazier’s full-court heave came after the clock expired — he missed anyways — and the game was over, another heartbreaking loss for Illinois in head coach Brad Underwood’s first season.
Another slow start came back to bite the Illini, reminiscent of the Michigan game just over a week ago. Illinois made one of its first 10 shots and had a five-minute scoring drought early in the first half until freshman forward Greg Eboigbodin made a bucket in the paint off the glass.
Where Illinois found itself staying in the game in the first half was with aggression in the paint, like Eboigbodin and Frazier.
But Nebraska, like most Big Ten teams, chose to penetrate and attack Illinois’ lack of length throughout the first half. Several missed Nebraska free throws kept Illinois in the game early, trailing only 15-11 with under 12 minutes left in opening period.
After graduate guard Mark Alstork injured his eye during the opening minutes — he returned midway through the half — and Illinois’ lack of baskets, the Illini could not find a go-to scorer in the first half. That’s when junior forward Leron Black took over until he got in foul trouble as he made shots in the lane and turnaround jumpers from just inside the free throw line.
Glynn Watson Jr. had to head to the bench with about eight minutes left in the half due to two fouls, the second coming after a Frazier steal at half court. Frazier couldn't take the lead at the line after missing the second of the one-and-one.
Illinois shifted to a zone defense several times in the first half, and it resulted in stops on Nebraska on offense.
Evan Taylor didn’t get the start for Nebraska, snapping a streak of 40 consecutive starts, but he played great defense at the end of the first half.
Finke tied up the game early in the second half by getting an offensive rebound on a missed Black three (at the end of the shot clock). He put it up after a pump fake, good shot. Black scored at the basket next possession, and Illinois seems to be finding a rhythm. Trent gave Illinois the lead again next possession with a dribble drive.
Illinois scored on its first four possessions in the second half, including a Leron baseline jumper. The Illini on a 13-2 run, dating back to end of first half, and up by 4.
Black picked up his third foul five minutes into the second half and had to head to the bench. The Cornhuskers responded with six straight points, including a Robey fast-break dunk, and they tied the game up at 40.
Illinois was forced to go back to a man-defense, and Nebraska’s playmakers, like Watson, were able to just find a little space to sink open jumpers.
On the other hand, Nebraska turned to its own version of a zone defense, a 1-3-1, which made it very difficult for Illinois to attack the post. The Cornhuskers kept the Illini to the perimeter, working deep into the shot clock and getting poor shots.
Nebraska kept the run goes midway through the second half, scoring 14 straight points before Frazier made a floater in the lane as the shot clock expired. Frazier’s make ended a five-minute scoring drought.
Down 50-42, Finke hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, Illinois’ second made three of the game. Finke scored double figures for the first time in six Big Ten games this season.
Illinois cut the deficit to three when senior guard Anton Gill hit a three-pointer in the corner, his first basket of the game.
Frazier was expected to carry Illinois’ offense late in the game, taking a loose ball on defense all the way for an easy layup to cut the deficit to 57-53. Underwood stuck with a lineup of four guards and Finke at the under-four media timeout, and it did produce some offense by way of quick passing from Frazier to Finke (under the basket) to Williams.
Only trailing by two points, Roby caught a pass in the right corner on offense and was fouled by Eboigbodin, the second time Illinois fouled a Nebraska shooter in the act of the shooting a three-pointer in the game.
When hope looked to be fading following a missed Williams’ three as the shot clock was expiring, Black picked up Illinois’ 18th offensive rebound and put the ball back up for two second-chance points.
Illinois returns to the hardwood Friday night with another road game, this one at Wisconsin in Madison. The Illini will return home following the game with five of the next six games at the State Farm Center.