CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Brad Underwood said the team’s attitude before the game was a “somber funeral.”
That was the mood of the entire State Farm Center after arguably the most heartbreaking seven seconds of basketball you could ever watch.
Down by as many as 20 in the second half, the Illini held a one-point lead and forced a stop with under 10 seconds to go, but fell 70-69 in front of a sold-out State Farm Center on Tuesday night.
Ayo Dosunmu was once again the catalyst for Illinois’ second-half comeback. The sophomore poured in 15 in the final period of regulation and sparked a 20-point comeback that resulted in Illinois taking the lead for the first time all evening with just under five minutes to go.
But down by one with about 30 seconds to go in the game, Dosunmu couldn’t finish on a transition layup. A dive under the basket and quick timeout by head coach Brad Underwood helped the Illini retain possession — one that ended with Kofi Cockburn sinking two free throws from the line.
Tom Izzo’s squad had one final chance to respond down one with 17 seconds left, and Xavier Tillman followed up an errant shot with a thunderous slam.
Illinois had an opportunity with seven seconds left, but Dosunmu slipped just inside the three-point line and turned the ball over to the Spartans.
He had to be helped off the court at the end of the game.
There was a lot of reaction in the postgame press conferences to Dosunmu’s injury.
“I hope Ayo’s okay,” Izzo said. “He’s a great kid and a great player. Prayers are out to him.”
“I was 100% sure Ayo was making that shot,” Cockburn said. “He’s known for making clutch shots like that. In the moment, it was a little overwhelming... Praying for Ayo is all that’s on my mind right now.”
It looked like it could be another historic upset for the Illini over the Spartans, one like the 28-3 bowl-clincher from November.
Instead, the Illini are in a place where a share of the Big Ten title is likely out of reach.
For more than three halves of basketball during Illinois’ pivotal two-game homestand against Maryland and MSU, the Illini didn’t look the part of a top-20 team contending for a conference title.
A second-half burst against Sparty flipped the script.
The Illini (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) took full advantage of the charity stripe, going a perfect 18-of-18 from the line compared to just 3-of-5 for the Spartans (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten) in the final 20 minutes.
“My wife will say, ‘what the hell happened in the second half?’ Izzo said. “Well, Illinois is good too.”
Lupe Izzo will probably ask him that because it was a lackluster first 20 minutes for the Illini that opened with Giorgi Bezhanishvili wedging a three-point attempt between the backboard and the rim — and it didn’t get much better after that.
The Spartans shot 50% from both the field and behind the arc with Rocket Watts’ 14 leading the way at the break. For the Illini, not a single player registered more than one basket or three points, good for 8-of-31 (25.8%) as a team. Michigan State led 37-20 at the break.
But Tuesday night — despite the comeback and heartbreak at the end — is about Ayo.
As Andres Feliz said, “He’s going to be back soon.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Griffin Starts (the Half): Alan Griffin started the second half in place of Bezhanishvili. On the Illini’s he first possession, he took a three from the corner and made it. Bezhanishvili missed all three of his attempts from distance in the first half.
Giorgi Re-Enters (the Game): Bezhanishvili re-entered the game in the second half with just under 13 minutes remaining in the game. His guy got a layup first, and then Giorgi was called for an illegal screen, his fourth foul of the game. That was enough for Underwood to pull him again.
No Illini scored more than three points in the first half. Da’Monte Williams, Kofi Cockburn, Andres Feliz and Tevian Jones led the way, each with three points apiece. Williams’ and Jones’ came on three-pointers.
TWEET OF THE GAME
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
It was a tough night for everyone, but especially the stripes.
HE SAID IT
“Tonight was far and away the loudest I’ve heard this building, not even close. I’m thankful that we have such passionate fans. I love driving in two hours before and seeing a line.” - Brad Underwood, on the atmosphere at State Farm Center on Tuesday
Illinois now hits the road for a pair of games against some of the Big Ten’s elite.
First up is a matchup in Piscataway on Saturday afternoon against Rutgers. The trip concludes against No. 13 Penn State next Tuesday night.
But going forward, nothing for Underwood matters more than Dosunmu’s health.
“Everybody has to do a little bit more when you have to replace someone of Ayo’s stature.”