Ironic call cuts Illinois’ season short


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 Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist

Flashback four years ago to March 24, 2013.

It’s the 3rd round of the NCAA tournament, and Illinois is down by two against Miami.

With about 45 seconds to go, an errant shot from D.J. Richardson ricochets off a Hurricane player out of bounds, but the officials thought otherwise. Miami gains possession and goes on to win.

Following that game, the NCAA implements a rule that allows referees to review a play that goes out of bounds in the final minutes.

Fast forward to Saturday.

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    Illinois and Rutgers are tied at 59, and with about 40 seconds left, Tracy Abrams drives to the tin, misses a layup but puts up a fight with Rutgers forward Deshawn Freeman who winds up out of bounds. Illinois is given the ball, but officials review it and change the possession to Rutgers. The following play, Freeman hits the game-winning three with nine seconds left.

    Game over.

    I’m not saying that a blown call four years ago that caused a rule change is the sole reason for ruining Illinois’ 2017 postseason campaign. There have been many more factors this season that have put the Illini in a position where a win over Rutgers was a necessity to stay in the mix. I’m just pointing out the irony.

    The fact that the Illini’s last appearance in the NCAA Tournament has soiled their chances at a seed this season is the most Illinois-like thing ever. And the fact that Abrams, a member of the 2013 tournament team, was involved makes it even more eerie.

    But, Illinois should have never even been in a situation where the final seconds of a game against Rutgers determined the outcome of its season.

    Saturday was the most embarrassing moment of the year for Illinois, as it fell to the worst team in the Big Ten and officially knocked itself out of NCAA Tournament consideration. To go from the electrifying atmosphere and emotional win over Michigan State to a buzzer-beater loss in Piscataway, New Jersey is disheartening.

    Illinois had one job – defeat Rutgers and shift its focus to the Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C.

    Instead, Illinois had its third-worst shooting night of the season against the lowest-scoring offensive team in the Big Ten. Entering the contest, Illinois was riding a four-game winning streak while Rutgers was on a six-game losing streak.

    With a little under 15 minutes left in the game, a freshman Michael Finke’s three-pointer put Illinois up by 10. In the following six minutes, Rutgers embarked on a 13-3 run and tied things up. During the run by Rutgers, Illinois went 0-6 from the field, secured two offensive rebounds and shot 3-6 from the free throw line.

    That’s the game right there. Illinois could have and should have maintained that 10-point cushion.

    Now, I think Rutgers does deserve some credit, hanging around with some tough teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers went to overtime with Wisconsin and lost by four to Northwestern and Michigan this season.

    But, for Illinois, that shouldn’t be its excuse. In fact, there should be no excuse for Saturday’s loss. That was just a poor performance from a team looking like it forgot it was actually playing for something.

    I feel bad for Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan. The two seniors each put up 16 points against Rutgers and have fought this entire season to try to get to the big dance. Now, the only hope for Illinois is a miracle run and an automatic bid in hopes of winning the Big Ten Tournament. Just when it looked like the Illini could get their suits dry-cleaned and dress shoes polished, their date cancelled on them.

    But, I hear the NIT might be looking for a dance partner.

    Matt is a Junior in Business.

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