Breaking down Wednesday’s Illinois men’s basketball thriller

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (right) hugs Malcolm Hill (left) after the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Wednesday, March 1.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist

Wow.

What a night.

In a must-win game, the Illinois men’s basketball team came through with a victory over Michigan State on Senior Night. This game had all the hype to be an iconic moment for John Groce and his senior class.

They delivered.

With 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and a more than likely 20th this season, Tom Izzo is not a man you want to mess with when it comes to basketball in March. Yet, Izzo and Michigan State stood between Illinois and its continuation of this recent run.

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    I wouldn’t go as far as to claim it was a David and Goliath moment. In fact, Vegas had Illinois favored by two points. But still, the Spartans are consistently one of the Big Ten’s best and entered last night 6-2 in their last eight games. They were the last major road block for Illinois this season.

    Last night was a challenging test and it was incredible to watch Illinois seize the opportunity. The Illini shot the ball well, limited their turnovers and made clutch plays in crunch time.

    If you aren’t behind Illinois’ campaign for March Madness after last night, I strongly consider watching highlights from Illinois’ last six games. This team is a bunch of fighters and are making strides with every game they play during this run.

    It’s a much different team from the first half of conference play. One can only imagine where Illinois would be sitting in the conference if it started Big Ten play the way it is finishing it.

    If that still doesn’t convince you, check out last night’s postgame interviews with Groce and Hill on Big Ten Network.

    When asked about this group of seniors, Groce got choked up, but suppressed his facial expressions that tried to escape. Hill, on the other hand, broke down with an outpour of emotions.

    It’s hard not to get behind a guy like Hill. His four years at Illinois have been great to watch and last night was a fitting end to it all. He took control of the game dropping 22 points and dishing out four assists.

    Hill has made his mark as one of the greatest Illini in program history as he continues to climb the all-time scoring list, now at the No. 4 spot. But, there’s still one accomplishment Hill has yet to achieve and it would be a damn shame if he doesn’t have the chance.

    Selection Sunday is a few weeks away and Illinois has gotten itself in the mix. So, what does last night’s win mean for Illinois’ tournament hopes?

    Illinois has been catching some buzz in its recent stretch of games and last night certainly helps the cause.

    Illinois can’t afford to get complacent. The Illini need to take care of business against Rutgers this Saturday and make some noise in the conference tournament. In my opinion, it’s going to take at least one, possibly two wins in the Big Ten Tourney to have a strong shot at the big dance.

    With Hill paving the way for this streaking Illini team, I think Illinois’ chances are looking a lot more probable.

     Matt is a Junior in Business.

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    @MattGertsmeier