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‘Just didn’t play smart’: Illinois’ historic comeback effort falls short in regular season finale

The Illini will play Thursday in Chicago.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — They almost did it again.

In a sold-out Senior Day crowd at Mackey Arena on Sunday, Purdue was able to fend-off a furious second-half comeback by Illinois, escaping with a win 76-71.

Illinois (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten) looked absolutely lost in the first half as it has at times this season, most recently when they were down 18 to Northwestern only a week and a half ago.

But similar to that game, they decided to turn on the jets in the second half and flip the script.

“The 11-0 start, the 24-point run they went on late in the half, the 21-point deficit, the comeback. It’s kind of been our story,” said head coach Brad Underwood.

The Illini slowly started cutting into the Boilermaker (26-5, 15-5 Big Ten) lead, to where it eventually got to within single-digits. Eventually, behind some incredible defensive play and scoring when needed, Matthew Mayer had a chance to shoot a couple free throws to give Illinois a one-point lead — which would have been its first lead of the day. He would only make one though, and the game would be tied at 67.

Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. combined for 22 second-half points (11 each), but Mayer got a bit too overzealous and tried to play hero from behind the arc.

The grad transfer took seven shots from deep in the second half, but none of those went in during crunch time when the Illini needed it most. The Boilermakers would end up hitting a two from Zach Edey after the Illini tied it up, and would not give up the lead again.

Illinois needs to figure out what goes wrong in the first half though entering tournament play, as right from when the ball was tipped it looked like Purdue would run away with this.

“First half was all me,” Underwood said. “I didn’t have these guys prepared.”

The Boilermakers jumped out to an 11-0 early lead and would never find themselves trailing in the game — exactly what can’t happen if you want to win in what’s arguably the hardest road environment in the conference.

Illinois would cut the lead to only three in first half to make it 23-20 following a 7-0 run, and it seemed like they had something figured out defensively.

The flood gates would open following that.

Purdue guards Brandon Newman and Braden Smith (29 combined first half points) started hitting their shots and taking advantage of lapses in Illinois’ defense to end up eventually giving the Boilers a 21-point halftime lead.

“We played very hard in the first half, we just didn’t play smart,” Underwood said.

Usually Purdue wins when Edey dominates (-10 on the day and only 17 points), but he did not have to do much on Sunday. Coleman Hawkins was the primary defender on the potential National Player of the Year and tried everything to defend the 7-foot-4 big.

Underwood has so much praise for his stretch five.

“I can’t tell you guys how good a player Coleman Hawkins is,” he said. “Find me the last time Zach Edey was minus 10 being on the court. Coleman Hawkins was plus 12.”

It's also nearly impossible to win on the road — much less in Mackey Arena — when guys like Shannon Jr. have five turnovers alone in the first half. His five were a part of 11 total in the first half. Not having your starting point guard in Jayden Epps was a reason for so many turnovers.

“Today we missed Jayden,” Underwood said. “Not having your point guard who gets us into stuff and handles those things. But that’s no excuse, we’ve got to do a better job.”

So, moral of Sunday’s story: If you want to win in this month of March, avoiding big deficits is a great start. Regardless, the comeback gives Underwood confidence in his team moving forward.

“I think we’re playing our best basketball, I really think we’ve shown that we can play with anybody in this tournament,” Underwood said. “It’s win or go home, we’re guaranteed nothing from here on out.”


FLAGRANT NO CALL?: Down 67-66, Matthew Mayer was driving to the hole to try and tie the game up. He did end up getting a couple free throws after a Zach Edey foul, but if this was called a flagrant you also get the ball back. You be the judge of this one.

TURNOVERS: I don’t care who you are, you will never beat anyone on the road if you have 11 turnovers in one half. The first half was so sloppy for Illinois, and those turnovers were a big reason Purdue was able to run up the score so easily.

SECOND HALF ILLINI: The team played amazingly in the second-half overall, as it shot 56% from the field and 42.9% from behind the arc, and overall outscored Purdue 45-29. Hopefully (and fingers crossed) this momentum carries into next week and beyond.


TSJ sent this one into oblivion to keep the comeback alive.

We all started to think they’d get another comeback win after this.


  • Purdue improves to 105-90 all time against Illinois.
  • Illinois has lost three in a row to the Boilermakers.
  • Purdue improves to 65-29 at Mackey Arena against Illinois.


It was a valiant effort getting back into this thing.


Illinois will head to Chicago as it starts Big Ten Tournament play on Thursday.

A lot still has to happen in the conference today, so as of now we aren't sure when the first game will be. We’ll bring you all those updates this week on TCR.