On queue, the Illini once again put fans on an emotional roller coaster with the highest highs and lowest lows in a hotly contested battle with the Longhorns. While they held a lead at half thanks to a hot shooting half from the real Matthew Mayer (please stand up) — looking a lot more like the player fans were expecting — the second half was an entirely different story, as the Longhorns took control for the next 10-12 minutes.
However, the signature Brad Underwood grit was evident in this group, and the Illini kept fighting and turned the tide from the 8-9 minute mark and through overtime.
Let’s break down how the Illini got it done.
The Illini struggled to share the ball and run their sets against the strong Longhorn on ball defense, a signature of all Chris Beard coached teams, finishing with only 11 assists on 27 made field goals. Illinois relied on tough shot making from Matthew Mayer, who did most of his damage in the first half, and otherwise didn’t have a great deal going on offense, especially in the second half.
The attention to detail left little to be desired until the final 8-9 minutes, as the Illini continued their streak of sloppy turnovers (17) stemming from out of control drives turning into charges, miscommunication on passes in transition, and overdribbling straight into the hands of the Longhorn defense.
Defensive execution was a struggle for large portions of the game, as many Illini defenders got caught in the air on shot fakes and couldn’t keep the Longhorns in front of them as they racked up foul after foul.
The Illini were fortunate that to be in the game midway through the second half, as they struggled to find anything on offense and Texas continued to methodically cut, drive, and draw fouls at the basket.
Discipline and focus were key areas of concern for the Illini that helped the Longhorns get out to a 10 point lead in the second half.
Beyond the breakout showing from Mayer individually, there wasn’t much good for the Illini on offense until the end of the game, as Terrence Shannon Jr. finally found his stride (16 points all in the second half and OT) and got major contributions from Jayden Epps on both ends controlling the tempo (11 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds).
As the Longhorns seemed to tire down the stretch, the Illini regained life and started to exploit holes in the defense. They cut out the turnovers, tightened the team and individual defense, and started to move the ball to generate better offense looks that translated to points on that end.
The Illini’s length and activity on defense (12 blocks, 7 steals) finally started to wear on Texas as the game wore on, generating some easy transition points that generated some momentum and ultimately helped the Illini come out on top.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the toughness, grit, and motor of this team helped them right the ship against a strong opponent that should be a nice resume win come March.
The Illini get Penn State and Alabama A&M at home before they head into the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri. I genuinely hope that Coach Underwood and his staff make the jump stop a significant part of their next practice, as the reckless charges and resulting foul trouble is going to make it difficult to consistently win against top defensive teams.
In addition to this, the fundamentals, like closing down defensive possessions with a box out, staying on your feet contesting shots, smarter shot selection, crisp ball and people movement offensively, etc., become key as the opposing talent improves and margins for error tighten.
There should be a good many lessons that this Illini squad can take from this one that can help them moving forward as they continue to gel and come together.