Coleman-Lands saves Illini from calamity at the buzzer

By Alex Roux

Illinois was teetering on the brink of calamity Monday at Prairie Capital Convention Center.

Chicago State, listed as one of the worst of 351 Division I basketball teams by Ken Pomeroy’s ranking system and picked to finish last in the Western Athletic Conference, led Illinois 79-77 with 40 seconds left to play in Springfield. The Cougars’ Elliott Cole — who had 21 points on the night — pulled down an Illinois miss, and potentially the worst loss in program history stared the Illini and their fans straight in the face.

But Illini junior Malcolm Hill stripped Cole under the Illini basket and fed Khalid Lewis for a game-tying floater, and Illinois forced a Cougars shot clock violation on the ensuing possession. With 4.6 seconds remaining, it was up to Illinois head coach John Groce to draw up a play, his team inbounding the ball 60 feet from the basket.

He drew up a beauty.

Finke received the inbounds pass, handed the ball to Hill on a wheel route, and Hill found a wide open Jalen Coleman-Lands in the corner.

Splash.

The freshman Coleman-Lands let it fly just in time, saving his team the embarrassment of a defeat to a Chicago State team whose coach referred to Illinois as “our big brother” on the radio before the game. The crowd let out a relieved roar, and Coleman-Lands was mobbed in the corner by his teammates.

The win pushed Illinois to 2-3 on the season. The Illini haven’t started a season 1-4 since the 1906-07 season, when they faced heavyweights like the Peoria and Chicago YMCA clubs. Coleman-Lands delivered the dagger, but the Illini wouldn’t have had a prayer without redshirt freshman Michael Finke.

Finke finished with 17 points on the night, eight of which came from the charity stripe. The 6-foot-10 Champaign native capped off a 14-point comeback with 7:40 left in the game, hitting two free throws to tie the game at 66. The teams traded punches the rest of the game until Coleman-Lands’ knockout blow.

But make no mistake, even though the Illini avoided a total catastrophe Monday in regards to the outcome, the rest of the game was extremely troubling. Chicago State has eight newcomers on a roster largely made up of community and junior college transfers. Many Cougars are in-state players who Illinois would never dream of recruiting. Chicago State is a bad basketball team.

The Cougars hit some tough shots and played extremely hard, but this was about Illinois barely bothering to show up.

Injuries – Leron Black didn’t play due to a sore knee and Kendrick Nunn was sidelined again — temporary home games and a tough early-season schedule do not excuse this performance. There is no silver lining, no positive spin you can put on this one to make beating Chicago State by three look pretty.

“I don’t like excuses,” a clearly rattled and frustrated Groce said after the game. “They all stink.”

The Illini defense was porous again, allowing 11 three-pointers and way too many wide-open, weak side layups to the Cougars. What was once a strength of Groce’s Illini teams is now a glaring weakness.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Illini players aren’t trying or that they don’t care. But something is off, getting lost somewhere between preparation and execution.

JCL’s final shot was an exciting end to a disaster of a stint in Springfield for Illinois. The Illini led for just 15 out of the 160 regular season minutes played at their temporary home, and were wholly unimpressive on the way to a 2-2 record.

“I feel like most of these games, we’ve been beating ourselves, honestly,” Hill said after the game. “I think we’ll get better over time and we’ll be alright.”

The Illini probably can’t fix whatever ails them right away, but they need to apply some band-aids, and fast. They face another tournament team — UAB — in Florida as part of the Emerald Coast Classic on Friday, and if they can somehow win that matchup they’ll likely play a very talented Iowa State team Saturday.

If they play like they did Monday in Florida, it will get ugly.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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