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The Pattern Continues

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The Illini made things interesting, but it was another frustrating night.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini (19-8, 12-5 B1G) were unable to keep pace with Purdue & Wisconsin in the Big Ten title race, losing 86-83 to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Thursday night in Champaign.

While the loss itself won’t mar Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations, it did continue a discouraging pattern of recent play.

This was from TCR’s recap of last Saturday’s win versus Michigan State:

While the game had a thrilling finish...we can’t forget that the Illini had a 16-point lead at one point in the second half. The same thing happened last week when Illinois let Northwestern back into the game, despite owning an 18-point advantage.

A potentially worrisome trend is emerging for the Illini here where they are wasting good starts and letting teams hang around.

The Illini, as we’ve seen so often this Big Ten season, got off to a rapid start. Alfonso Plummer hit four triples in the opening minutes, and Illinois had built a double-digit lead. But, as we’ve seen so often this Big Ten season, that lead dwindled down to a single point, 37-36, at halftime.

The Buckeyes were the latest opponent to go on a lengthy scoring streak against the Illini. A 22-2 run spanning the end of the first half and first 5+ minutes of the second half eventually stretched Ohio State’s lead to as many as 16 points. Illinois had six made field goals and seven turnovers at the under-8 timeout.

Brad Underwood was ejected with 6:21 left, and if he hadn’t already been tossed, he surely would’ve been after Kofi Cockburn fouled out (on a — let’s just say “questionable” — call) less than two minutes later. But then, somehow, the Illini, without their head coach and best player, flipped the proverbial switch.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois
Coleman Hawkins (#33) tallied 10 points and four rebounds in 26 minutes Thursday night.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois converted on ten consecutive possessions to draw within a bucket before Coleman Hawkins — the man who helped ignite the Illini’s late rally — also fouled out in the final minute. The Buckeyes missed some free throws to help Illinois cling to hope, but some rushed shots and a horrendous no-call on a Trent Frazier layup attempt (bad refs? in the Big Ten? Surely, you jest!) preserved the Buckeyes’ mild upset.

What Went Right

  • The “Orange Out” was a beautiful sight to behold. The State Farm Center crowd was hyped from the opening tip and provided a fun, raucous environment.
  • Alfonso Plummer broke out of his mini-slump. The Utah transfer had not sunk a three-pointer in his previous two conference games, but connected on eight Thursday night, tying the program record set by Brandon Paul, Trent Meacham, Dee Brown & Kevin Turner. Plummer is now shooting 41.2% (82-for-199) from distance.
  • Coleman Hawkins was pressed into action thanks to Kofi Cockburn’s foul trouble. The 6-foot-10 sophomore turned in his best performance this season — 10 points, four rebounds, three steals in 26 minutes — and helped energize Illinois in the second half.

What Went Wrong

  • Hawkins & Cockburn each fouled out and Brad Underwood was ejected after receiving two technical fouls in the second half. Big Ten referees have been absurdly, comically bad all season long (this isn’t WHY Illinois lost the game, but the inconsistencies in officiating have plagued the Illini every night), which is mainly the reason BU got tossed in the first place. Kofi picked up his first foul with approximately 30 seconds left in the first half. He picked up four more fouls in 11 minutes of play in the second half.
  • Kofi was receiving plenty of attention from the Buckeyes, and the Big Ten POTY candidate struggled to fight out of double and triple teams. A frustrated Cockburn was held to just 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting in 24 minutes.
  • I don’t know why, I don’t know how, I don’t know who to blame, but every game will have a stretch of 5-10 minutes during which the Illini will not score. This almost always coincides with a period where the opponent can’t miss. This team has a real problem sustaining leads and it’s difficult to understand.

With only three regular season games remaining, the Illini are running out of time to correct their issues. It goes beyond not being “whole” or “healthy.” This team has the pieces to be a Big Ten and national title contender. The overall energy level needs to improve, but the Illini will face another early postseason exit if they can’t buck this trend of squandering fast starts.