Remember when Illinois was the most dangerous team in the Big Ten? The one that nobody wanted to play.
Well, that team is playing on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite the offensive return of Giorgi Bezhanishvili and a tighter defensive effort, Illinois couldn’t clinch a first-round bye in this week’s conference tournament after a 72-56 loss to Penn State in College Park on Sunday afternoon. Illinois closed the regular season with a pair of losses, where a win in either would have sent the Illini to a top-10 seed and a chance to avoid playing on the tournament’s first day for the second straight season. Instead, with Indiana’s win over Rutgers on Sunday, Illinois will play as the No. 11-seed and open the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday at approximately 8 p.m. CT versus Northwestern.
The Nittany Lions gave Illinois all it could handle early in Sunday’s game, opening the rematch of Penn State’s late February win in Champaign with a slugfest. Besides an Ayo Dosunmu three-pointer and Bezhanishvili reverse layup, neither team could produce much offense in the game’s opening 10 minutes. Notably, the Illini let several positions run down toward the end of the shot clock and had Adonis De La Rosa attempt to post up (unsuccessfully) on the Nittany Lions two possessions in a row.
But the Illini continued to turn to Bezhanishvili — before he hit foul trouble — which had not been the case in some of the more recent games since his record-setting 35-point output against Rutgers last month. After making just 10 shots over his last three games, Bezhanishvili sunk four baskets for nine points in the opening half, leading Illinois in that category. Aaron Jordan and Dosunmu each sunk a pair of three-pointers before the break to push Illinois to the locker room with a 32-31 advantage.
Yet it was not just Illinois’ offense starting to come around on Sunday. Just three days removed from allowing 52 points in the paint and 92 overall to the Hoosiers in a blowout loss, the Illini forced Penn State to settle for shots. The Nittany Lions started 1-of-11 from three-point range, but senior Josh Reaves made a few from distance, forcing Illinois to go on a 7-2 run to take the lead into the locker room.
All of that changed out of the locker room, though. The Illini’s offense went silent and Bezhanishvili picked up his third foul just 14 seconds into the half. Dosunmu led a few fast breaks, but far too many turnovers, an on-fire Reaves and a silent Trent Frazier sent Illinois to a double-digit deficit for most of the half. Reaves finished with a career-high 26 points, finishing it with a breakaway dunk with 28 seconds left in the game.
The Illini had a late rally, cutting the deficit to nine with under four minutes to play, but Jordan could not sink a deep three-pointer and Illinois never really recovered again.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Locker Room Run: Reaves made a few threes toward the end of the first half, and Illinois had a response, which included a Dosunmu three and Andres Feliz floater. It made a decent first half worth it by finishing it off with a lead.
TWEET OF THE GAME
11 a.m. CT tipoffs after a time change should be illegal.
FS1 broadcast said Illinois was practicing at 6:50 AM in State College, which is really 5:50 AM in Champaign, which is really 4:50 AM with Daylight Savings— Alex Roux (@arouxBTN) March 10, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
This is the type of offense Illinois had been missing from Giorgi the past few weeks ever since the Rutgers game. Maybe it was just some freshman slumping or his sinus infection, but this is at least the expectation from the Georgian next year.
If Illinois wants to go dancing this year, it’s going to take five wins in five days.
It’ll start Wednesday night at the United Center in Chicago against Northwestern. Tipoff for the No. 11/No. 14 game is scheduled at 8 p.m. CT.
If the Illini beat the Wildcats for the second try in three times this season, Illinois plays No. 6 Iowa on Thursday night at approximately 8:30 p.m. CT. All games over the first three days in the tournament are on BTN.
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