Illinois stands as match for Maryland in latest prime-time blowout

By Alex Roux

Maybe it was too optimistic to expect Illinois to put up a fight at No. 14 Maryland on Thursday.

In a vacuum, a blowout is reasonable to anticipate. The Terrapins are a good team stacked deep with talent, and they showed it when they clowned the Illini 81-55 in College Park to improve their record to 24-6 and 12-5 in the Big Ten.

But by now, one would hope that the Illinois had adjusted somewhat to missing players like Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. due to injury. One would also hope John Groce’s guys would put up a fight on ESPN, the national network on which they’d already been dealt three ugly blowouts prior to the Maryland matchup.

Neither turned out to be the case Thursday as Illinois (13-17, 5-12) looked listless on offense on its way to a fourth straight humiliation on the Worldwide Leader’s prime time slot this season.

Illinois’ staunch defense in the first half allowed it to muster a shaky counterpunch to Maryland’s early grip on the game, clawing to within 19-16 of the Terps. The Illini double-teamed Terps big men Diamond Stone and Jake Layman in the post, forcing them to kick to the perimeter for three-point shots. The strategy paid off and kept the game close, until those threes eventually started to fall.

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Maryland made it rain in the second half, expanding a 33-25 lead to a 62-40 advantage behind a blistering spree of threes. The Terps shot 14-of-25 from beyond the arc on the evening, good for a 56 percent clip. Star point guard Melo Trimble had been struggling recently, but tied senior Jake Layman on senior night for a team-high 18 points. Like we’ve seen play out in other second halves this season, the Illini’s previously-sturdy defense wilted quickly under the Terps’ perimeter assault.

The most positive development on Illinois’ side didn’t come from Malcolm Hill or Kendrick Nunn, as the high-powered junior duo combined for just 15 points. Instead it was junior center Maverick Morgan who was force on offense, picking-and-popping for open mid-range jumpers and finishing strong in post traffic on his way to a career-high 21 points. He also out-played the freshman phenom Stone on the block, grabbing 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.

Mav’s emergence has been one of this season’s brightest storylines, but several of his previous breakout games came against the weakened front lines of Minnesota and Rutgers. Maryland’s frontcourt has talent and certainly no shortage of big bodies, but they couldn’t come close to containing Morgan Thursday.

His performance was the only layer of sugar you could use to coat this latest Illini dud against a superior Big Ten team. The rest of the offensive game plan was unimaginative and poorly executed. Illinois shot just 36 percent on the night, falling victim to Maryland’s length and a lack of off-ball movement and activity on their own end.

It’s been encouraging to see the Illini players continue to work hard under Groce during a disaster of a season, but from a different perspective that’s been part of the problem on offense. They simply have to work too hard to generate good looks at the basket, relying too heavily on one-on-one isolations and shots off the dribble. Against an athletic team like the Terps, Illinois gets stifled.

It’s these brands of blowouts that rightfully bother fans. Illinois is obviously going to face better teams in prime-time matchups because of the eyes those teams draw, and thus will have a tough time winning. But Thursday’s demolition dropped the Illini to 0-4 on ESPN this year, losing by an average of 28 points in those contests.

Perception is reality, and injuries or not, the Illinois program’s perception is at historic lows.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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