Rutgers matchup could be a trap game for Illinois

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) pulls up for a jumper during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Wednesday, March 1.

By Lucas Wright , Staff writer

The Illinois basketball team is on a roll and looks poised to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament.

There is still one regular season game left to be played — on the road at Rutgers.

In the midst of playing the team’s best basketball all season, Illinois takes a four-game winning streak into the Rutgers matchup. Rutgers is 2-15 in conference play this year and is riding a streak in the opposite direction of Illinois: a six-game losing streak.

Despite what seems to be a lopsided matchup on paper, Illinois might have some worries about Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have played many of the teams in the Big Ten close in games and took Wisconsin into overtime just over a month ago.

Although Rutgers is last in the Big Ten in scoring, it has a balanced attack led by sophomore guard Corey Sanders, who averaged just under 13 points per game.

While the matchup should be a win for Illinois, it will get Rutgers’ best shot, as the Scarlet Knights will be honoring two of their players on senior night and will be trying to send them out with a win, just as Illinois did on Wednesday.

NCAA Tournament a real possibility for Illinois

With the win over Michigan State, Illinois moved to 18-12 on the season and 8-9 in Big Ten play. At the beginning of the year, a winning record looked like it would be enough to get a Big Ten team to make the NCAA Tournament, but for the Illini, 9-9 might just do it.

If Illinois can take down Rutgers on the road, it will move to 19-12 overall on the year. With the win over Michigan State — another bubble team — sweeps of Iowa and Northwestern and non-conference wins over VCU and BYU (who just took down No. 1 Gonzaga), Illinois has some key wins on its resume.

Still, it appears the team will need at least one win in the Big Ten Tournament to have a realistic shot. A couple wins may put the Illini over the top, but an opening round loss would most likely dash the dreams of the NCAA Tournament.

Hill goes out on top

In his final game at the State Farm Center, Malcolm Hill put on a show for Illini fans, dropping 22 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists in a win over Michigan State.

On the final play, Hill was guarding Michigan State guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. when he was laid out by a screen from a Spartan big man. Although he was knocked face down on the floor, Hill said he looked up and saw the final shot miss.

Soon after, Hill was overcome with emotions as his team, members of the media and his friends and family swarmed him in celebration, where his emotions got the best of him, and he wept.

“I was just thinking of the first game I ever played here, and I just remembered my first day stepping on campus, when I was wondering if I was good enough to play for this University,” Hill said. “Just seeing where I had come from, I was thinking about all my former teammates, friends and family that had been supporting me the last four years. A lot was running through my head in that split second.”

During the game, Hill passed Brian Cook for fourth on the Illinois all-time scoring list.

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