Illinois men’s basketball suffers defeat against Arkansas in first round of NCAA tournament

Junior+guard+RJ+Melendez+works+his+way+down+the+court+during+a+game+against+Wisconsin+on+Jan.+7.+Despite+a+late+run+by+Melendez+and+senior+guard+Terrence+Shannon+Jr.+on+Thursday%2C+Illinois+fell+short+to+Arkansas%2C+with+a+final+score+of+73-63.

Sidney Malone

Junior guard RJ Melendez works his way down the court during a game against Wisconsin on Jan. 7. Despite a late run by Melendez and senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. on Thursday, Illinois fell short to Arkansas, with a final score of 73-63.

By James Kim, Sports Editor

After a 33-game season that came with its highs and lows, the Illini have reached the end of the road.

No. 9 Illinois men’s basketball lost out 73-63 to No. 8 Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday night. Melendez and Shannon provided the Illini with a late surge, but the team couldn’t get over the hump in what was their final game of the 2022-23 season.

Head coach Brad Underwood sent out his starting five of senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., sophomore guard RJ Melendez, fifth year forward Matthew Mayer, junior forward Coleman Hawkins and redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja as the Illini prepared to tip off against the Razorbacks.

The NCAA tournament got off to a rocky start for Illinois. Despite Hawkins opening up the scoring, Underwood’s squad looked nervous and could not hold on to the ball. The error-filled play allowed the Razorbacks to get going on an 8-0 run before sophomore guard Luke Goode ended the Illini scoring drought with a three-point make.

To say Illinois looked sloppy in the first half is putting it lightly. Offensive misfortunes continued to plague Illinois in the shooting department, and halfway through the first half, the team had shot a mere 23.5% from the field. Arkansas hadn’t shot the ball much better, shooting 36.8% from the field ten minutes in, but Illinois’ constant turnovers gave the Razorbacks heaps of fast break points.

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    Despite consistent three-point shooting from Goode, the Illini were unable to find any momentum. A huge problem early on for Illinois was its veteran players, Shannon and Mayer, being unable to get anything going offensively. Mayer looked shaky with the ball and couldn’t get any of his shots to fall. The Razorbacks locked in defensively, and drive after drive Shannon was unable to find a way through the wall of white jerseys. Things were looking bleak.

    However, the final two minutes saw the Illini begin to find its stride, with Shannon leading the way. Despite his previous struggles, the Chicago native continued running at Arkansas’ defense and scored eight straight points to bring Illinois within eight.

    The ugly first half came to a close with the Illini trailing 36-26.

    Coming out of the break, Hawkins once again opened the scoring for Illinois after nailing a wide-open triple. Shannon and Hawkins quickly combined shortly after to bring the deficit down to just five.

    At the 15:22 mark, Mayer got up to record a huge block for the Illini that allowed Shannon to explode down the court to complete the and-one play. However, the Razorbacks recovered and responded with a 10-0 run to boost their lead to a 17-point advantage.

    As Illinois struggled to find an answer to Arkansas’ steady offensive flow, a certain sophomore guard re-entered the game and quickly began to heat up. Melendez provided the Illini with a crucial energy boost and went on an 8-0 run of his own to bring the team back within single digits. With the Puerto Rico native getting hot, the final five minutes remained tense despite the Razorbacks maintaining a nine-point lead.

    Illinois continued to claw its way back after frequent trips to the line. Following two more Shannon free throws, the Razorbacks immediately turned the ball over to allow Melendez to slam home a monster dunk for the Illini. With 2:29 remaining, Illinois trailed by just five points.

    In spite of the late surge, however, Arkansas was able to hold out, staying in front until the final buzzer sounded. The Illini exited the tournament following the 73-63 defeat.

    The 2022-23 season has now come to a close for Illinois, who finish the season 20-13 overall and 11-9 in the Big Ten conference.

     

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