For 30 minutes, the Illini proved they belong with the big boys of college basketball.
Despite hanging with the Bears for a majority of the game, No. 2 Baylor (3-0) pulled away from No. 5 Illinois (3-1) 82-69 in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis on Wednesday.
“It was a dog fight for a good portion of the game,” said head coach Brad Underwood after the Illini took their first lost of the year. “I give a lot of credit to Baylor. There’s a reason they won 23 straight. They showed their tenacity, their toughness.”
When you find yourself going up against one of the best defensive teams in the nation, you’re going to need somebody outside of the usual suspects to step up. With Ayo Dosunmu getting locked up for the majority of the game, the Illini needed production from somewhere else.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the guy.
The junior gave Illinois 15 points and four rebounds off the bench — 13 of those points in the first half. Kofi Cockburn missed a hefty chunk of time in the first half with two fouls — and picked up his third less than a minute into the second half — so the Illini needed the Rustavi, Georgia, native to eat some minutes.
“I think we are right there,” Bezhanishvili said after the loss. “We just have to clean up little mistakes. Trent (Frazier) isn’t going to have nights like that with 6 turnovers. Kofi (Cockburn) isn’t going to have nights like that. (Ayo Dosunmu) isn’t going to shoot like that.”
“I’m really excited about moving forward with Giorgi,” Underwood said.
Free throws hurt, as the Illini converted just one time in their first six attempts from the charity stripe. The game also started sloppy for both teams, understandable for two offenses that only had a few tune-ups before taking on one of the nation’s top defenses. Difference is, it stayed sloppy for Illinois.
Aside from Bezhanishvili, the Illini struggled to get offense going. Turnovers plagued Illinois in the first half, giving the ball back to Baylor eight times in the game’s first 20 minutes — but nonetheless Illinois headed into the break down just 31-30.
The Illini and the Bears traded shots early in the second half, but a few offensive rebounds and steals from Baylor extended the Baylor lead to 12 points with about eight minutes remaining in the game.
“We couldn’t get the stop we needed,” Underwood said. “We would score and then they would come down and score. First half they didn’t get any of those looks. Our young guys gotta understand, it’s a fight.”
Dosunmu got going a bit in the second half for Illinois. The junior scored a game high 18 points and added five assists and six boards.
Adam Flagler led the way for the Bears offensively, scoring a team-high 18 points off the bench.
The Baylor lead grew to as many as 16 and shrunk to nine, but the Bears proved why they were ranked three spots ahead of Illinois.
“We’ll come back and fight to be even better,” Bezhanishvili said.
- Bezhanishvili matched and outscored his point total for the first three games combined (15) on Wednesday night with 15 points.
- Wednesday’s game against No. 2 Baylor was Kofi Cockburn’s first game without a double-double so far this season.
- Ayo Dosunmu had scored 20 plus points in three straight games to open the 2020 season, that streak was broken on Wednesday.
Halftime.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) December 3, 2020
Already 13 points from Giorgi Bezhanishvili, tied for his most points in over a year. pic.twitter.com/QcUbG7AGZf
TWEET OF THE GAME
Baylor is better than us.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) December 3, 2020
Doesn't mean we can't be better in March. But right now, they're better.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Give me all the Giorgi B. you have.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili pic.twitter.com/j1rZyn1RNS— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) December 3, 2020
Illinois returns back to Champaign for its final non-conference matchup at State Farm Center. The Illini will play UT-Martin on Saturday night.
Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.