Illini basketball folds at Wisconsin in seemingly inevitable collapse


Illinois head coach John Groce yells instructions at his team during the Illini’s 78-67 loss to Nebraska at State Farm Center earlier this season.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

MADISON — You could sense the collapse coming.

A scene that Illinois basketball fans have grown accustomed to this season played out again Sunday night at Kohl Center in the Illini’s 69-60 loss to Wisconsin. Similar to previous losses against Chattanooga, Michigan and Notre Dame, Illinois’ offense evaporated and a second half lead slipped away.

In a game featuring huge scoring runs for both teams, Wisconsin had the biggest and most important one. Down 46-33 with 12 minutes to play, the Badgers came out of hibernation and exploded for a 28-4 run that spanned 10 minutes and ultimately buried the Illini.

A loss to the now 12-15 (4-10 Big Ten) Illini would have hindered Wisconsin’s (17-10, 9-5) NCAA tournament hopes, and Greg Gard’s group responded.

The Badgers began to smell blood after Illinois freshman Michael Finke missed two free throws with a 46-35 lead. Shots that wouldn’t go down in the game’s first 30 minutes began to fall for Wisconsin, and Bronson Koenig capped the comeback with a three to knot the game at 46.

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By the time the Badgers opened up a 55-48 advantage, the once-quiet Kohl Center was alive and rocking.

“That last 12 or 14 minutes when we made that run, that was Wisconsin,” Gard said after the game.

Badger freshman Ethan Happ led the way with 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the junior duo of Koenig and Nigel Hayes played like you’d expect holdovers from last season’s National runner-up team to play. Wisconsin got next to nothing from its bench, but the contributions of its top three scorers was too much for Illinois to withstand.

On the backs of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, the Illini always seemed to have an answer for the Badgers on the offensive end. Until they didn’t.

Hill and Nunn dropped 20 and 15 points, respectively, and Hill was nearly un-guardable as the Illini extended their second half lead to double digits. But they couldn’t keep any offensive momentum going as Illinois’ late game scoring drought extended past seven minutes without a bucket.

At their best points, the Illini looked smooth and efficient on offense as they moved the ball with purpose and got good looks. But as they wilted under Wisconsin’s barrage, they looked as hapless as they have all season.

Illinois’ disappearance down the stretch was inexcusable and unquestionably the primary reason they dropped yet another winnable game. But the officiating and lopsided foul differential had an impact, as well.

Maverick Morgan picked up five fouls in seven second half minutes, including two tough-to-spot calls that had Illinois head coach John Groce fuming on the sideline. Illinois was whistled for 26 fouls to Wisconsin’s 12, and that’s including a handful of late-game intentional fouls by the Illini.

The most egregious moment came with three minutes remaining as Illinois trailed 55-50 to play. Referee Bo Boroski called a charge on Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter, but crewmate Ted Valentine overruled Boroski and called Finke for a block. It was a crucial moment in the game and virtually eliminated any hope of an Illinois comeback.

“I thought it had a real influence on the game,” Groce said of the foul differential in the second half.

He chose his words carefully in the postgame press conference and didn’t directly criticize the officials, but there was a definite frustration beneath his comments. I don’t blame him, and I probably would have gone full Bob Knight and thrown a chair or two on the court if I was Illinois’ head coach.

But I’m not, Groce is, and despite his insistence that his team has come together and played well in their last three games, all there is to show for it is two winnable road losses and a win over Rutgers.

Add in the headache of Leron Black’s weekend arrest for allegedly pulling a knife on a club bouncer, and the current state of the Illinois basketball program is as bad as its been in a very long time.

It’s a shame, because Hill and Nunn are studs. It will be a college basketball tragedy if they go all four years at Illinois without playing in the NCAA tournament. There’s real talent in Groce’s current freshman class too, but it remains to be seen if he’ll ever climb out of the hole that Lady Luck and the Injury Bug have helped him dig.

This season was lost long ago, but fans should have wanted to win this one more than most. Wisconsin has now won 10 straight games against Illinois dating back to 2011, and Groce is 0-7 against the Badgers. It would have been a feel-good victory in a gloomy season if the Illini could have escaped Madison with a win.

But a good team did what a good team does and a bad team did what a bad team does Sunday, and Illinois stumbled when it mattered most.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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