Illini unravel in second half as Irish spoil State Farm Center debut

By Alex Roux

If you’ve watched a lot of Illini basketball over the years, you could pinpoint when the game started to unravel.

Illinois didn’t lose to Notre Dame Wednesday night by a score of 84-79 because of one or two plays; it was a prolonged second half collapse that did John Groce’s team in. But when Kendrick Nunn’s three with 18:02 left in the second half rattled halfway down before bouncing back out and Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem immediately drained a corner triple on the other end to cut the Illini lead to 43-38, the tone of the game started to shift. That six-point swing was near the beginning of an Irish comeback from a ten-point deficit, and the remodeled State Farm Center fell increasingly silent.

With 11:49 to play, Notre Dame grabbed a 51-49 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish. Illinois’ loss dropped it to 3-5 on the season.

The Illini used a balanced attack to pick apart the Irish man-to-man defense in the first half. Even as the Irish repeatedly pounded the ball in the post to take advantage of Mike Thorne Jr.’s absence, it wasn’t enough as the Illini took a 41-33 point lead into the break on 50 percent shooting. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey decided he had had seen enough, and decided to switch to a zone defense in the second half.

The Illini couldn’t adjust.

Leron Black followed Nunn’s ill-fated second half three with a trio of missed shots in the lane. A few more open looks from distance wouldn’t fall, and Illinois was well on its way to a 2-for-18 start to the second half from the field. The Illini’s open looks began to dwindle as their ball movement suffered and the ball was pounded into the ground much more than you’d like to see against a 2-3 zone.

Any energy left over from Illini coaching legend Lou Henson’s halftime court dedication was sapped from the building, and Notre Dame rolled as they shot 57 percent in the second half.

Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson — who was one of Groce’s first high-profile recruiting targets at Illinois — started the game a cold 1-for-5 from the field in the first half. But as is usually the case with the game’s elite players, Jackson wouldn’t be held down for long. He diced Illini defenders for 17 second-half points, finishing with finesse in the lane and knocking down three 3-pointers on his way to 21 total points on the evening.

Illinois couldn’t check Steve Vasturia or Beachem on the perimeter, either. Both knocked down three 3-pointers and repeatedly found themselves with good outside looks, especially in the corners. Vasturia finished with 21 points and was an especially tough matchup, capable of bullying his way to the basket when smaller Illini defenders closed out hard on him.

“It’s unacceptable,” Groce said after the game of his team’s defensive performance. “It’s not good enough, and these guys know that.”

I wrote before the game that a loss to Notre Dame would leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of everyone involved with the Illinois basketball program. It sure seemed to as the fans trudged to the exits and the Illini players trudged to the locker room with their heads down for the fifth time this season.

The new arena — even though its debut was spoiled — is spectacular. They layout in its lower bowls is conducive to a raucous environment, and it was electric at tip-off with screaming Orange Krush students surrounding three fourths of the floor. State Farm Center is now a home worthy of big-time college basketball, and the Illini played up to that standard in the first half Wednesday evening.

But as Malcolm Hill noted after the game, this team just hasn’t figured out how to play consistently for 40 minutes yet. In four of their first five games they got embarrassed in the first half. In their last two they’ve looked sharp in the first against good opponents, only to crumble in crunch time.

Groce was adamant after the game that the struggles must be corrected. With the losses piling up, he has to prove he’s capable of correcting them.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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