CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Last Sunday, Illinois held Purdue to its lowest shooting percentage in over 70 years. Just six days later, the Illini found themselves in a similar position with 10 minutes left on the clock.
The Illini (12-5, 4-2) shot just 28.6% from the field for the game and were well on the way to their worst shooting percentage in program history (16.7%) when they caught fire midway through the second half, narrowly edging out Rutgers, 54-51, on Saturday afternoon at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
“I was concerned when you come off an emotional road win,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “You worry about the next step, growing through those things. I was concerned about it. I’m happy with the growth of our program when you shoot 29% and win. They’re not all gonna be pretty.”
The last time these two teams met, they combined for 193 points. This year, it was a much different story, and Illinois did just enough to overcome its disastrous shooting affair.
“That was just about everything I thought it’d be today,” Underwood said. “I used the definition rock fight... Rutgers is one of the best teams in the country.”
With the win, the Illini are now in sole possession of second place in the Big Ten and amidst their best stretch of the season. But it didn’t come easy. Nevertheless, victories over Purdue, Wisconsin on the road, and Rutgers (12-4, 3-2) has Illinois in good shape with a matchup against Northwestern next Saturday looming on the horizon. The Illini have a great chance of moving to 5-2 in the conference, establishing themselves as a contender, and playing their way back into the tournament.
“It’s a great feeling knowing the hard work is paying off, but we’re not satisfied,” said Ayo Dosunmu. “We want more. We want to keep striving and getting better and better. We want to be the best team in the league.”
His head coach echoed that same “next game” mindset.
“We got two thirds of the season left,” Underwood said. “The next one on the schedule is going to be just as hard as this one... I don’t look at standings. It’s the next game and next practice. There’s no other way to look at it.”
If you’re Underwood, you couldn’t have drawn up a worse half of basketball. It started right from the tip when Kofi Cockburn missed an alley-oop from Dosunmu. Things just went downhill from there. Rutgers and Illinois combined for five turnovers in the first four minutes and 15 total for the half. However, it was the Scarlet Knights who were the aggressor. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell’s squad limited Illinois to just 19% (!!!) shooting in the first half, including 0-of-7 from behind the arc.
Despite a poor first period on the offensive side, the Illinois defense stepped up, holding Rutgers to just 9-of-27 shooting, but it was the Scarlet Knights who headed to the locker room with a 21-18 edge.
Illinois finally caught fire midway through the second half. A string of 5-of-7 made field goals gave the Illini a slight edge, but Rutgers had a counter for every Illinois bucket. Andres Feliz, who went scoreless in the first half, came alive in the second and proved to be just the spark Illinois needed. All eight of his points came in the final 20 minutes and all eight were needed. The final minute came down to a free throw battle that Illinois would win, 54-51.
Kofi Cockburn — 11 points, 17 rebounds, 5-6 FT
Ayo Dosunmu — 18 points, 7 rebounds, 7-8 FT
Illinois is the only team in college basketball this season to win a game scoring fewer than 60 points while shooting less than 30% overall and less than 20% from three.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) January 11, 2020
TWEET OF THE GAME
Alan Griffin’s energy off the bench is crucial, but even more important today is his energy ON the bench, apparently— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 11, 2020
The Illini get a week off before returning to the State Farm Center to take on Northwestern (5-9, 0-4) next Saturday. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. CT and will be televised on Big Ten Network.