Illinois runs out of gas in second half, falls to Baylor 82-69

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Andre Curbelo goes up for a layup in Illinois’ game against Baylor on Wednesday night in Indianapolis. The Illini lost 82-69.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Entering Wednesday’s top five showdown against No. 2 Baylor, No. 5 Illinois was salivating to get the chance to prove their legitimacy. Sure, they won 20 games last season and were destined for the NCAA Tournament. Being ranked No. 8 in the preseason is a quality accomplishment for a program, but Brad Underwood’s squad still had something to prove.

They had that chance in Indianapolis on Wednesday night, with the opportunity to take down a veteran Baylor team. Illinois competed for the first 30 minutes, but the Bears pounded them in the middle of the second half, showing Illinois how far they are from being a legitimate title contender. The Bears used a 9-0 run to get a 16-point lead, eventually defeating the Illini 82-69.

“In the second half, right in that stretch, everything flipped,” Underwood said. “That got them a couple clean looks from three, then we had a turnover or two…it was a frustrating night.”

The first half was a seesaw affair, with both teams flexing their strength and athleticism on the defensive end. Kofi Cockburn was effective inside early protecting the rim for Illinois, but picked up his second foul with over 11 minutes remaining in the first half.

Illinois appeared to lose its biggest edge over Baylor in Cockburn, but junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili brought a high-level of energy off the bench. Defensively, Bezhanishvili made brilliant rotations to prevent Baylor from scoring inside. Offensively, he flashed all sorts of post moves and hooks Illini fans were accustomed to seeing from him in his freshman year. Bezhanisvhili hit a three trailing in transition right before the half to give Illinois a 30-28 lead.

The Rustavi native finished in double figures for the first time since Jan. 21 of last season.

“Just had to step up,” Bezhanishvili said. “Kofi is a great player. He’s not gonna have a lot of nights like this. But when he does, other players have to step up and it was me tonight.”

After a Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua free throw, Illinois had the chance to go into the half with a three-point lead. Bears guard Jared Butler picked Frazier’s pocket and calmly drained a one-legged floater to give Baylor a 31-30 lead heading into the break. Frazier and the Illini struggled with ball control in the first half, having four of his team’s eight turnovers.

Illinois competed in the first half despite a lack of production from star guard Ayo Dosunmu. Baylor’s lengthy defenders and constant switches gave him troubles in the halfcourt as he went 1-5. But the Chicago native opened the second half doing what he does best: transition buckets. He nailed a three and converted a layup for five straight points, giving Illinois a 39-37 lead. But it would be the last lead they had.

Baylor came out of the under-12 timeout like the Baylor team that won 27 games a season ago. The Bears were all over the glass, finishing with 16 offensive rebounds and out boarding the Illini 20-10 in the second half. After going 1-6 from three in the first half, the Bears hit five of their 11 attempts from deep. They had 10 assists to two turnovers. Illinois competed and played hard, but the Bears ultimately wanted it more.

“They fought for 40 minutes straight,” Bezhanishvili said. “They never gave up. They just played like dogs for 40 straight minutes, not a minute less. That’s what they do.”

The biggest concern for the Illini from Wednesday’s loss, was the foul trouble and lack of production from. Cockburn had a size advantage inside, but struggled with the energetic Baylor bigs. He registered just seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes and seemed at a disadvantage on defense against Baylor’s speed.

The Illini put on a good showing for the majority of the game, but have one lackadaisical stretch, and a team like Baylor will make you pay. The Bears did just that on Wednesday, displaying their dominance. With more top ranked teams on the horizon, Underwood’s message to his team after the game was clear.

“You’re not going to beat these caliber of teams, losing 50/50 battles,” Underwood said. “You’ve gotta figure out how to beat really good teams when that ball doesn’t go in.”

@BrandonSimberg

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