Frantic finish bounces Providence’s way against Illinois basketball

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

A frantic finish fit this game well.

After scratching, clawing, battling and bleeding for 39 minutes and 45 seconds, Illinois and Providence came down to the final possession Wednesday night in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. With the Friars clinging to a one point lead, Malcolm Hill controlled the ball at the top of the key with the clock winding down. Hill already had put up 15 points, and he needed at least two more if Illinois wanted to avoid a 1-2 start to the season.

Hill blew past All-Big East Defender Kris Dunn on a left-handed dribble, angled his way to the rim and muscled up a lefty layup that was reminiscent of his game-winner against Penn State nine months ago. This time, the ball didn’t go down.

Instead, the rock bounced off the rim right in the hands of a soaring Michael Finke. The Illini’s 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman was bumped by Providence’s Kyron Cartwright and couldn’t flush what would have been an epic game-winning put-back slam.

Hill got one final three-point look, but it wasn’t meant to be. Providence (2-0) would defend the Dunkin Donuts Center with a 60-59 win. For Illinois, it was about as gut-wrenching as a defeat can get.

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This loss may lose you some sleep, but don’t be too upset about the outcome. Is it frustrating? Sure. Illini fans are a tortured species lately, and have seen plenty of heartbreakers over the years. This ending seemed to follow the same cruel script.

The rest of the game didn’t exactly play out like one might expect. Dunn is unquestionably one of the country’s best players, but he didn’t pick up his first field goal until 31 minutes into the game. He finished with 10 points, far shy of this columnist’s pregame prediction of 25.

Entering Wednesday’s contest, the Illini’s Mike Thorne Jr. had 46 points over two games. After exiting Wednesday’s contest with five fouls in 12 minutes, Thorne was still stuck on 46. He and starting frontcourt-mate Leron Black put up a combined goose egg in the scoring column and both picked up fouls like they were candy on the floor.

Finke and backup center Maverick Morgan picked up the slack. Finke’s soft touch helped pick apart the Providence 2-3 zone, and he finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in a breakout showing. Morgan added six and three.

But it was Jalen Coleman-Lands’ performance that should really help soothe the souls of Illini fans. Fox Sports 1 color commentator Bill Raftery has seen a lot of basketball, and he couldn’t stop crowing about JCL’s silky stroke. The 6-foot-3 freshman guard had an immediate impact, splashing a three as soon as he entered the action six minutes into the game.

He wasn’t done.

Coleman-Lands hit five of seven threes on the evening, including two consecutive treys late in the second half to push Illinois to a 57-54 lead with six minutes left. He was taking advantage of his teammates’ fluid ball movement against the Friar 2-3 zone, and Providence decided to shut the door.

The Friars switched to a man-to-man defense and the Illinois offense stalled, suffering nearly five scoreless minutes when it could least afford to. It was as if the Illini spent the whole game perfecting their zone attack but didn’t know how to react when the scenery between them and the basket changed.

It’s hard to sugarcoat a 1-2 start. It’s hard to lose such an entertaining and close game. Some fans will take the positives from this game, note the injury-riddled Illini’s improvement from games one to three and move forward. Some will lament a slow break out of this season’s gates. And others will do some combination of the two.

But for Illini head coach John Groce and his players, the only option is the first. They must go onward.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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