CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — This late in the year, every game is a must-win.
With only five games left in the regular season, Illinois desperately needed a home win against Nebraska to improve its resume and keep the pressure on the rest of the Big Ten.
The Illini got just that.
Illinois was tested by Nebraska but survived, 71-59, on Monday night at State Farm Center. The Illini needed the win to help secure a top four finish and double bye in the Big Ten tournament.
“Well, they say defense and rebounding can overcome some shortcomings in other areas,” said Head Coach Brad Underwood. “I felt like tonight that was very much the case.”
Underwood stuck with the small lineup that worked against No.16 Penn State game on Thursday, starting Andres Feliz over Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Andres Feliz hit two early threes to kickstart the Illini to a 9-4 lead before the first T.V. timeout.
Teams got a little testy early after some early shoving from Da’Monte Williams and an eventual technical foul against Nebraskas’ Kevin Cross. Underwood went to Alan Griffin to shoot from the line after Illinois’ poor performance in that area against Penn State. The transition offense was cooking after two Ayo Dosunmu fast break gave the Illini (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten) their biggest lead of the night.
Illinois had the Huskers on their heels until Fred Hoiberg switched to a 2-3 zone. The zone took the life out of the Illini’s offense. Nebraska (7-20, 2-14 Big Ten) closed the lead with a 13-2 run in the final three minutes of the half and sucked the life out of the State Farm Center. Trent Frazier responded with a step-back three and a half-court miracle to give the Illini a six-point lead at the half.
“The one before the half, before that one, was a tough shot,” said Underwood. “Trent makes those, and we need him taking those shots. It was good to see those balls go in for him.”
Illinois didn’t start the second half the way they wanted too. A couple of threes from Thorir Thorbjarnarson, erased the six point lead the Illini held at half. Illinois just was able to squeak by the 2-3 zone to stay even with Nebraska before the first TV timeout of the half.
Despite the offensive woes, Trent Frazier and Alan Griffin never gave in. A couple of threes from Frazier and put back dunk from Griffin reignited the State Farm Center. The two found a rhythm and gifted the Illini an 11-1 run to regain their 10-point lead.
“Alan is so instinctive,” Underwood said. “He is as gifted as anyone I’ve seen having a desire to go get the ball.”
The Illini kept their foot on the gas. Cockburn closed out the game with a couple of finishes at the rim and the Illini maintained an 12-point lead to win, 71-59.
Moments that Mattered
Frazier from DEEP: The Illini had a lot of momentum erased by a late first-half surge from the Cornhuskers. When Illinois needed an offensive spark, it came from Trent Frazier... and then he did it again... but better. The Illini junior guard nailed a step-back three to give Illinois a 34-31 lead and then he did this.
Trent Frazier from 78 feet at the halftime buzzer pic.twitter.com/guNvZfUFnr— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 25, 2020
Frazier’s six-point surge gave Illinois a 37-31 lead and much needed momentum going into the half.
Second Half Surge: Nebraska tied the game up at 46-46, and after that the Illini went on a 13-3 run. During the run, Cockburn added four points, Trent Frazier nailed his third triple of the game and the run was capped off this ferocious Alan Griffin put-back slam. The Illini did not look back the rest of the way.
Board game: Not as much a moment, but more a series of moments. The Illini dominated on the glass against Nebraska, and grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. Illinois was able to convert that into 14 second chance points.
Tweet of the Game
You Gotta See This
Trent Frazier just beat the halftime buzzer, from three-quarters court. pic.twitter.com/v0RhKVfuJp— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 25, 2020
The Illini travel north to play instate rival Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday night.
The game will be broadcast on BTN at 7 p.m. CT.