Brad Underwood was showered by his team in the locker room at Madison Square Garden on Saturday after the Illini upset No. 13 Maryland in front of a pro-Terrapin — probably 90/10 — crowd. Ten months ago, Illinois was run out of the same gym by an average Iowa team on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament.
And since that loss last February — yes, remember how Illinois didn’t even play into March last year? — it’s gotten worse. There was the loss to FAU and the blowouts to Iowa and Nebraska. Some games were close, and some had too many fouls.
But, Saturday, something happened. Not really sure what it was, but it was magical. Instead of thinking a tie game with seven minutes left is the worst possible situation for the Illini, one should have felt confident since Giorgi and Tevian were sitting on the bench. And when the Illini opened the lead up to seven points with 70 seconds left, and thinking, ‘Oh geez, I shouldn’t celebrate yet,” you were able to celebrate. Maryland looked defeated, and Ayo and Andres were in charge.
Maybe Saturday was a turning point, maybe it wasn’t. At the very least, it showed that the Minnesota game wasn’t just a complete anomaly from who this team is. Maybe the team is buying in, or maybe it’s a result of changes from Underwood and his staff (like #ReallyFreeingTev). Not to be an Underwood apologist, but the system has worked at moments. No denying that. Illinois had just one turnover in the first half, while the Terrapins had almost 10. That’ll play.
So at the very least, this was a game we deserved. Call it a road game or don’t, but Illinois flew two hours from Champaign to play in this one, so we’re going to call it a road game. That was five years for the Illini without a road win versus a ranked Big Ten opponent. Doesn’t that feel good? Doesn’t it feel great to finally be thrilled with a team’s performance again? For the revenue sports, that’s the first time in a handful of years that you could really be impressed with the Illini, who they are, and who they are trying to be.
And for the players, don’t you feel happy for them? It was Ayo who said after the Minnesota game that it was time for the Illini to start throwing punches; Saturday was one helluva punch.
If there’s one message to take away, it’s this: the win over Minnesota two weeks ago may have actually been a sign of things to come, not an outlier in a long stretch of losses. Let’s hope the big win at the Garden validates that in the long run.
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