Down-to-the-wire showdown ends with No. 14 Indiana on top of Illinois men’s basketball


Sidney Malone

Fifth-year forward Matthew Mayers readies to inbound the ball against Rutgers on Feb. 11. During the first half, Mayer had an impressive streak scoring 11 points in three minutes.

By Conor Blount, Assistant Sports Editor

Following the second loss of the season to the Penn State Nittany Lions, Illinois men’s basketball was once again in search of revenge in a road matchup against No. 14 Indiana. The two programs’ first meeting of the season was entirely one sided as the Hoosiers walked away with a 80-65 victory despite an impressive 26-point performance from senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. Despite leading for all but the final 30 seconds of the second half, Illinois ultimately fell once again to the Hoosiers. With a final score of 71-68 Illinois dropped to 19-9 overall and 9-8 in Big Ten play.

The last Illinois time out, Shannon suffered a concussion that ruled him out for the contest with Indiana. In his absence, Illinois started out with freshman guard Jayden Epps and sophomore guard RJ Melendez headlining the front court, while fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer, junior forward Coleman Hawkins and redshirt-sophomore forward Dain Dainja rounded out the rest of the starting five.

The Hoosiers came down with the tipoff and immediately got the ball into the post for their first points of the game. After a few scoreless possessions for the Illini, Dainja broke the seal with some post work of his own after grabbing an offensive rebound. On Indiana’s next play, Epps picked up a steal and threw it ahead to Melendez who was primed to throw down a thunderous transition dunk before a Hoosier foul forced him to earn it at the line.

Not much separation was gained by either squad for the next several minutes, until a three minute scoring drought by Illinois allowed a 5-0 Indiana run. With Illinois now having to battle from behind, Mayer took it upon himself to go blow for blow with Indiana, scoring 11 points in under three minutes of play to give the Illini a two point lead (25-23).

Offensive rebounds were easy to come by for Illinois, as their next seven points were all off second chance opportunities. Sitting at a six-point lead with just over five minutes remaining in the half, Hawkins gave the Illinois fans what they were looking for with a powerful jam over the top of Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. After giving a quick yell to let out the emotions of performing such an incredible play, Hawkins was issued a technical foul by the referees and Indiana got two points back at the charity stripe.

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    A 5-0 run from Indiana followed the free throws, cutting Illinois’ lead to just one, but once again, Illinois reaped the benefits of offensive rebounding as Dainja threw down a dunk off a miss layup by Epps. Neither team scored for over two minutes, leaving just 32 seconds remaining when freshman guard Ty Rodgers pulled off some crafty post work to finish over Jackson-Davis. A second chance layup by the Hoosiers on the final possession of the first half resulted in a 38-35 halftime lead for the Illini.

    Illinois came out of the break firing, with Melendez and Dainja executing a beautiful two man game to free up an uncontested layup for Dainja. On the defensive end, Hawkins picked up an impressive chase down block that freed up another layup for the Illini. The Hoosiers responded with a make from the midrange, but Rodgers put on another clinic in the paint against Jackson-Davis to push the Illini lead back to seven (44-37). This was followed up by yet another adrenaline boosting play for the Illini, as Mayer got the ball behind the arc on the fast break and threw up a nasty pump fake that freed up a driving lane for an emphatic dunk.

    After one more make for the Hoosiers, Illinois held them scoreless for over five minutes but was only able to grow its lead by two during that period. When Indiana ended up breaking its scoring drought, it began a five point swing that cut Illinois’ lead to 50-46. The two squads fought back and forth for several minutes, but every couple of possessions the Hoosiers crept a bit closer until they tied the game at 56-56 with 6:27 remaining in the game. Refusing Indiana the chance to take the lead, sophomore guard Luke Goode found Dainja for a tough and-one finish over Jackson-Davis.

    A Hoosier make from behind the arc brought the score to 59-59, before free throws from Mayer and a layup from the Hoosiers tied the game once again at 61-61. Mayer was fouled while shooting once again, this time behind the arc, but only made two of his three shots at the free throw line which freed up an opportunity for Indiana to take the lead after an and-one layup on the other end, but a missed free throw for the Hoosiers resulted kept the score knotted at 63 all.

    Now well into bonus plus, Mayer drew yet another foul on Indiana and made both of his shots at the line. Finally, Indiana came up empty on offense but an in-and-out three from Goode meant Illinois could not capitalize on the stop. Indiana tied the game once again and after a costly turnover by Illinois, Hawkins picked up a steal and fastbreak dunk to retake the lead (67-65). But as has been consistent down the stretch, Indiana immediately got those two points back.

    Illinois came up empty on its next possession and free throws for Indiana gave the Hoosiers their first lead of the second half with just over 30 seconds remaining in the game. With the game coming down to the wire, Epps drew a foul on his drive and had a chance to tie the game at the line but missed his first shot leaving Illinois down one with 16 seconds left.

    Opting to try and trap rather than foul, Illinois was beat by a hail marry pass to a cherry picking Jackson-Davis who threw down a dunk to go up three. Just a couple of seconds remained on the clock and Mayer opted to pass to Melendez whose buzzer-beating shot did not drop, resulting in a final score of 71-68 in favor of Indiana. Mayer was Illinois’ top performer, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and a steal.

    Illinois men’s basketball will get a short break before its rescheduled matchup against Minnesota this Monday in one of Illinois’ final home games of the season.



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