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This Is What We Had In Mind

The Illini rose to the occasion Tuesday night.

Twitter: @IlliniMBB

Following a nail-biting win against Ohio and a hard-fought loss to Baylor, the Fighting Illini had something to prove heading into this week’s games.

As I was watching the ACC/Big Ten Challenge coverage, the consensus position was this: If Illinois is the Final Four-caliber team it hopes to be, these are the types of games it needs to win. Well...this may not mean that the Illini will be cutting down nets in March, but Illinois rose to the occasion Tuesday night.

Illinois led by 14 at halftime and was ahead by as many as 19 in the second half en route to a decisive and satisfying 83-68 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. With or without fans, winning at Duke is as impressive a resume-booster as you can have.

Illinois’ dribble penetration led to several open threes early, and the Illini’s transition game killed the Blue Devils throughout the night. In a stark contrast to the loss to Baylor, Illinois was able to space the floor and control the pace of the game; the Illini were forcing the Blue Devils into contested shots all night long. There were a few stressful moments and some sloppy plays, but the Fighting Illini went on the road and beat Coach K with relatively little drama. That’s not nothing.

Duke started 0-for-11 from long range and NEVER led. The Illini’s wire-to-wire win should calm the anxiety certain fans felt after the Baylor game. Brad Underwood’s bunch looked and acted like the better team, a complete team who understands the challenges that lie ahead.

Ayo Dosunmu started off slowly but finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists in 36 minutes. Giorgi Bezhanishvili was once again superb in relief of Kofi Cockburn, and Da’Monte Williams & Trent Frazier came up with several big plays throught the game. And let’s talk about these freshmen for a second. Mr. Basketball Adam Miller bagged three triples in the first half, thoroughly outplaying fellow Chicago product DJ Steward. Andre Curbelo looked like a sorceror, weaving and knifing his way through the lane with ease.

If only for one night, the Fighting Illini showed what they can be. This victory should give Illinois a ton of confidence heading into Braggin’ Rights — a game which I don’t think will be particularly close. Beating Duke AND Miznoz back-to-back? That would be something to savor.