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Illinois couldn't make free throws, but the Illini found a way to win

The Illini were battle-tested on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini stayed undefeated at home with a hard fought win over the Boilermakers, 66-58, on Saturday. The game featured some exciting back and forth runs for both teams, with the Illini ending the first half on a 10-0 run and the Boilermakers storming back with a 19-0 run to start the second half.

Poor free throw shooting plagued the Illini once again in this contest and Purdue’s hotter shooting from three-point range kept this contest close throughout. Underwood and Co. have some work to do to establish better consistency and execution from this group.

Let’s dig into how it went down.

A Balanced Offense

Throughout the game, both teams struggled to score at various points. This was a key theme throughout the game as the key contributors for both sides were taken out of comfort zones and consequently struggled.

Kofi struggled to get his usual number of opportunities with the quick double teams that Purdue put on, but he made the adjustments throughout the game by dribbling out of the double team and getting to his spots. Despite some offensive struggles, he played stout defense against a tough opponent in Trevion Williams, forcing him into tough shots going over the top of him or away from the basket.

Transition points were key for the Illini in the first half, getting them on a 10-0 run to end the first half, which included a pair of big three-pointers from Da’Monte Williams.

Ayo Dosunmu finished with 12 points, all coming in the first half, primarily driven by these early open floor opportunities. Key contributions from Da’Monte and Andre Curbelo steadied the ship for the Illini, despite Dosunmu going scoreless in the second half.

Purdue Bothered the Illini

The size of Purdue with Trevion Williams and Zach Edey (3 blocks) clearly bothered the Illini, as Cockburn and Dosunmu weren’t able to operate as easily in the paint. This created some offensive stagnation around the perimeter, where the Illini were forced to put up some difficult perimeter shots. Purdue shot much better from 3 in this contest, finishing 7-of-16 (43.8%) as a team, with good looks for Sasha Stefanovic (3-of-5 from 3, 9 points) and Aaron Wheeler (2-of-3 from 3, 6 points). The Illini were frequently late on closeouts and slow in their recoveries, giving Purdue too many quality looks from distance.

Purdue also got some good looks going to the basket due to poor defensive communication from the Illini, as guards Miller and Dosunmu picked up some needless fouls at points due to the bigs Cockburn and Bezhanishvili not stepping up to stop the dribble penetration. Fortunately for the Illini, turnovers cost Purdue (14 total) down the stretch and gave them opportunities to stretch their lead, despite their poor free throw shooting and periodic offensive lulls.

Going Forward

To be more consistent offensively, the Illini need to play through Curbelo and Dosunmu in the pick and roll to create better opportunities for their perimeter shooters like Williams, Miller and Frazier, as well as interior presences like Cockburn, Coleman Hawkins and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Too often, they found themselves dribbling out the shot clock with perimeter handoffs without making any real move towards the hoop.

The free throw shooting needs to dramatically improve (9-of-22, 40.9%) if the Illini are going to be able to continue to put away talented Big Ten opponents late in games.

With the key youngsters, Miller needs to continue to grow offensively and expand his game beyond set three point shots, and Curbelo has to cut down on the turnovers by jump-stopping to find passes and move his feet defensively to beat opposing guards to the spot and draw charges instead of blocks.

Still, the steady contributions offensively and defensively from the other veterans like Frazier and Williams continue to show why this team has the chops to win the Big Ten this season.

Underwood needs to get better perimeter close outs, cleaner pick and roll defense, and consistent free throw shooting from this team, and I’m confident he will as we get deeper into the Big Ten schedule.