CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A tale as old as time.
After wild offensive inconsistencies told the story for Brad Underwood’s squad last season, Illinois set out to change the narrative against fourth-ranked Marquette on Tuesday night at State Farm Center.
However, the same problems continued. Illinois’ stagnant offense and big performances from Marquette’s Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones propelled the Golden Eagles to a 71-64 win.
“Give them credit,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “We’re a really good basketball team. They were better tonight.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Marquette (3-0) was scoreless in the first two minutes, but a 13-2 run put the Golden Eagles up early. Illinois (2-1) did not take the lead back for the rest of the first half, and a big reason why was the three-point shot.
It was a big trend that plagued the Illini last year, and it’s rearing its ugly head once again in this early season.
They failed to make a single three in the entire first half against Oakland, and those problems continued over into Tuesday night. Underwood’s squad shot 6-for-19 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Another big part of Illinois’ struggles was defending Tyler Kolek. The reigning Big East Player of the Year came into Tuesday night as a game-time decision due to an ankle injury, but he decided to give it a go.
Kolek didn’t lose a step, leading all scorers in the first half with 14 points. However, despite his performance and Illinois’ poor shooting, Marquette went into the locker room only up 36-31.
“We definitely left some opportunities on the table,” said head coach Shaka Smart.
Illinois took it to Smart’s squad in the second half, as a boost from Marcus Domask propelled the Illini to their first lead in over 20 minutes. Domask had his best offensive night of the season, scoring 18 points (6-13 FG) with six rebounds.
“I thought [Domask] was sensational,” Underwood said. “It was great to see him in an Illinois uniform just break out. He was fantastic.”
Both teams traded punches, but when it mattered down the stretch, the Illinois offensive production vanished.
Facing a 52-50 deficit, Marquette only allowed two field goals the rest of the way and forced Illinois to shoot one for its last 10. The defensive lockdown was enough to give the Golden Eagles enough to leave Champaign with a win.
Terrence Shannon Jr. did his best to fight back near the end, scoring 14 of his team-high 21 points in the second half. But his and Hawkins’ five turnovers each were a massive factor in the loss.
On the other hand, Marquette played a much cleaner game. The entire team only turned the ball over eight times — two less than Shannon and Hawkins.
“You can’t turn the ball over 15 times,” Underwood said. “Give their defense credit.”
Kolek accounted for half of their turnovers, but his 24 points (10-18 FG) and an impressive six rebounds and four assists completed his outstanding performance.
“We were trying to force [Kolek] to score,” Underwood said. “He did a good job of it tonight.”
The injury didn’t seem to bother him one bit, as the star guard played a game-high 38 minutes.
“I’ve got a lot of praise for Kolek,” Underwood said. “Pretty tough kid.”
Kam Jones came into the game as Marquette’s leading scorer (21.5 ppg), and although he was limited to three points in the first half, he bounced back in the second half. Jones complemented Kolek with 15 points and five boards, while big man Oso Ighodaro added 13 and another eight boards (six offensive).
Reminiscient to last season, the Illini heavily depended on the three ball. They shot 11-of-33 and had over half their field goal attempts from beyond the arc.
“We need better balance than that,” Underwood said.
Their production didn’t improve much from inside the arc, as the team only shot 35% in total. Marquette was much more aggressive and efficient, shooting 44% from the field outscoring Illinois in the paint 44-20.
“We’ve gotta continue to grow,” Underwood said. “We’ve gotta be more than Terrence Shannon ramming his head downhill.”
Luke Goode provided a massive boost off the bench for the Illini with a career high of 13 points, but three of the five starters (Hawkins, Ty Rodgers, Quincy Guerrier) combined for only 11 points.
Hawkins’ day ended with just five points. While he recorded three blocks on the defensive end, the senior shot 2-for-9 from the field, and his final of four misses from beyond the arc put the game out of reach.
“We’re putting the ball in his hands a lot, asking him to make the right plays,” Underwood said. “I’ve got no problems with the way Coleman’s playing. You just can’t turn it over five times.”
At the end of the day, Marquette may be one of the best teams in the country, but Illinois’ heavy dependence on threes and failure to take care of the ball spells troubles that last year’s team had. Will this narrative change?
“We’ve gotta believe in what we’re doing,” Underwood said. “When we do it, we’re really good.”
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Dikembe Mutombo would be proud.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Let’s have the only thing we remember from tonight be this.
WE GOT NUGGETS ALREADYYYYY pic.twitter.com/0osJ5gq8TV— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 15, 2023
Illinois continues its six-game homestand against Valparaiso on Friday.
Game time is 7 p.m. and you can stream it on B1G+.