Two different Illinois teams took the court on Thursday night against Northwestern.
The one from the first half? Probably would be sitting at the bottom of the conference with lowly Minnesota.
When Boo Buie outscores your entire team himself for a half, it’s probably not a good sign.
But whatever switch was flipped in the locker room following that first half beatdown is a switch I hope stays on as we approach the month of March, because the team from the second half? That team can beat anyone.
Illinois completely turned the tide in the second half on Thursday night, outscoring Northwestern 47-25 and completing an improbable comeback to ensure the ‘Cats wouldn’t sweep the season series for the first time since 1966.
They did it by scoring in bunches, ratcheting up the defensive intensity, and playing through their star.
The Terrence Shannon Jr. Show
Terrence Shannon Jr., fresh off being cleared from concussion protocol which caused him to miss two games, was simply phenomenal in the second half. He scored 24 points on -for-10 shooting and 4-for-5 from three, unlocking a gear we hadn’t seen from him since back in November against UCLA.
The saying goes that “guards win in March,” and if Illinois can get a guy even somewhat close to this version of Shannon in the postseason, they’ll have a chance to do a lot of winning.
This guy just straight up took over the game. When he wasn’t feeling it from three, he was getting to his left hand and attacking the rim hard, showing a level of assertiveness this team could really use on a nightly basis.
And in the biggest moment of the game, he delivered.
Just over a minute to play, tie game, he refuses to be forced right, crosses back to his left and leaves an All-Big Ten defender in Chase Audige in the dust.
If TSJ can be the guy like this for Illinois, its ceiling gets a whole lot higher.
Illinois can... score?
It sure doesn’t seem like it at times.
But Illinois had one of its best offensive halves of the season in its comeback effort.
After an absolutely putrid 0.613 points per possession in half one, the Illini were firing on all cylinders out of the break.
A frustratingly poor shooting team actually saw some shots find the bottom of the net, going 7-for-13 from three and really getting the crowd back into the game with a quick barrage of them in the first four minutes of the second half.
Overall, 1.424 points per possession in the second half and a total carving-up of the nation’s 20th-most efficient defense, according to KenPom. Much of the production came from Shannon and Mayer, but Illinois actually found a rhythm and had some real confidence offensively.
It’s very rarely pretty with these guys. But they in fact, can score at a high level when things are really flowing.
Less scoring droughts, more stretches like that.
Sencire Harris leads defensive turnaround
With 12:01 to play, Boo Buie knocks down a free throw to pad his new career-high: 32 points.
Insert Sencire Harris.
The rest of the way, Buie scored 3 points (3 free throws) on 0-for-5 shooting with 2 turnovers.
This defensive possession pretty much sums up why that was.
94 feet. Floor slap and all. That’s what a winning basketball player looks like.
As a team, Northwestern was held to just 2 field goals in the final 10:21 of action, and the energy and intensity that Harris brought everyone on the floor was noticeable.
The Illini responded in a major way from a first half filled with sloppy play, miscommunications, going under screens (much to Brad Underwood’s vocal displeasure), and letting Northwestern, and Buie particularly, have their way offensively.
There’s no reason this team filled with length and athletes shouldn’t be one of the best defensive teams in the country. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of effort and willingness, and that was no doubt the case Thursday night.
Whatever this team found in the second half, give me all of it. That’s the Illinois Fighting Illini I need to see in March.
From the shot making, the fist pumps, the intensity, everything about it was truly a joy to watch. It was a group that not only showcased their insane amount of talent, but one that cared.
More of that, please.