EVANSTON, Ill. — Brad Underwood didn’t remember whether the play was called for Trent or Ayo. But it was a dribble floater. He knew that.
Instead, the ball ended up in the hands of Kipper Nichols, who dribbled back out and handed it off to Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
Boom. Shot clock violation — the only one of the afternoon.
On the ensuing possession, Northwestern settled for a jumper from A.J. Turner. The shot was missed, the rebound was tipped, and the Wildcats gathered. Turner received the ball again, shot a three and sunk it.
Illinois had 10.7 seconds with the ball, but could only get a Trent Frazier heave at the buzzer, sending the Illini (4-11, 0-4 Big Ten) to their fourth loss in a row.
“We have a hurting locker room,” Underwood said. “There’s a lot of tears in that locker room.”
Everyone knew this would be a difficult season for the Illini. Going to Maui, having the first four conference games away from Champaign. That’s tough.
Missing every three-point attempt in an eventual two-point loss (68-66) to the in-state rival? Not just tough. Brutal.
“We were right there. A couple plays away. One rebound away,” said Ayo Dosunmu. “It’s hurting. It’s tough.
“Look at my face. I really want to win.”
Nobody blames you, Ayo.
Illinois could have left the newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday afternoon winless in conference play no longer. Instead, the Illini continue to sit with Penn State, Rutgers and Iowa at the bottom of the conference’s standings.
“We played well enough to win,” Underwood said. “Northwestern made the last play.”
The problem was that Illinois likely didn’t make even close to enough plays, even if the score — and Underwood’s comments — indicated a close battle. The Illini didn’t make a single three-pointer for the first time in over a decade, missing all 11 attempts. Entering Sunday, Illinois had made at least nine threes in eight straight games, averaging 9.2 treys per game this season, but missed all 10 attempts from outside.
It wasn’t just the missed threes, however. Illinois’ defense struggled in the opening frame, working the pick-and-roll and an aggressive Illini defense to the tune of eight first-half layups and dunks.
Add in a drought in the middle of the first half, and things were bleak for the Illini until graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa led Illinois in a 15-1 run heading into the break.
“Adonis has gotten in better shape,” Underwood said. “A little bit of it is matchups, guys he’s able to be successful guarding. But it’s his health and conditioning. There’s a lot of respect for him.”
De La Rosa finished with 12 points, which was second on the Illini to Dosunmu’s 18. But it was Bezhanishvili who was on his way to a big game before picking up a pair of early fouls and having to sit most of the first half.
But this game wasn’t about the offensive — or defensive — struggles. It shouldn’t be about Adonis’ big game, Ayo’s transition buckets (of which there were several), or Giorgi’s fouls. It shouldn’t be about the return of Tevian Jones, or even the shot clock violation (because, if you remember last year, there were several heartbreaking, boneheaded losses from a young team).
Instead, it’s a team that is clearly hurting and wanting to win, just as much as the fans at home want W’s.
“I’ve been on teams that have been like this and pulled it out the second half of the season,” De La Rosa said. “Just keep listening.
“We’re going through a tough time right now. Nobody wants to lose. Or by one shot or one possession. They’ll have many games like this and then many games on the other side.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Get Dunked: Northwestern didn’t build a lead midway through the first half on good shooting from distance or the free throw line, but instead via layups and dunks.
Over the first 12 minutes, the Wildcats made five of six such shots, using pick-and-rolls and an aggressive Illini defense.
i am here to educate at twitter dot come pic.twitter.com/MyNc1TRpWi— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) January 6, 2019
#TevIsFree: Freshman Tevian Jones returned from an eight-game suspension on Sunday. Jones checked into the game midway through the first half. His impact was minimal in four minutes, due to Kipper Nichols’ solid outing (eight points, six rebounds, three assists).
“If Kipper hadn't played well, Tevian would’ve played more,” Underwood said.
On not registering any stats other than a personal foul, Underwood claimed that “it’s completely different in practice,” which is the only place Jones has been on the court as of late. We’ll see what the former prized recruit can do going forward this season.
TWEET OF THE GAME
This is cool, right?
Thoughts on this sweatshirt? pic.twitter.com/ELRCwUxiqP— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) January 6, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The Ayo we expected all along is starting to appear. He’ll be a fixture in this section of recaps if he continues working in transition like this.
Illinois held Northwestern without a field goal for the final 5:02 of the first half and the first 3:29 of the second half, totaling 8:31 straight minutes.
Illinois returns to State Farm Center for its first Big Ten game of the season in Champaign — the Illini hosted Ohio State at the United Center in December — on Thursday night.
The opponent? No cupcake. The No. 2 team in the country, the Michigan Wolverines.
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