Illinois men’s basketball flashes potential in loss to No. 15 Iowa

Illinois head coach John Groce has said over and over again that for Illinois to break out of this slump everyone needs to fire on all cylinders. They did just that against No. 15 Iowa on Saturday, and it still wasn’t enough to end what is now a seven-game losing streak.

As Groce said, this 81-74 loss against Iowa “stings” for an Illinois squad desperate for a big win. The Illini had a five-point lead in the second half on its home court and let it slip away. It’s surprising Illinois was even in position to win this game after trailing by as many as 21 points in the first half.

Illinois started the game ice cold just like it had in its six previous contests. Illinois was simply overmatched by Iowa in the early going. At one point, the Hawkeyes had more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Illini had total rebounds (eight). Groce said Illinois was struggling to get into its defensive sets with Iowa constantly pushing the ball. The Illini, faithful in attendance, had every reason to give up with Illinois down 21 points and on a six-game losing streak, but they didn’t.

The 16,618 fans at State Farm Center had as much to do with this comeback as any Illinois player. Jon Ekey’s 3-pointer to bring the Illini within 16 points led to a deafening roar from the crowd. The fans didn’t give up, and neither did the Illini.

Illinois ended the first half on a 23-6 run. Back-to-back 3-pointers by freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn sent State Farm Center into a frenzy.

“They fought their tails off,” Groce said. “We fight here, that’s what we do.”

Everything aligned for Illinois to steal the win away from Iowa, but the Illini just couldn’t execute down the stretch.

Iowa ended the game on a 20-8 run thanks to numerous mishaps by Illinois. The Illini gifted five points to the Hawkeyes with two late turnovers leading to Iowa and-one’s. The last one, a turnover by Joseph Bertrand leading to a Roy Devyn Marble and-one, all but iced the game.

It’s just a shame Illinois lost this game, especially when they finally showed what they’re capable of.

Bertrand was phenomenal, using his crafty penetration and finishing skills to lead the Illini with 20 points, but the rest of the team stepped up as well.

Seven players scored six or more points for the Illini while three scored in double figures. Illinois’ 12 assists don’t do justice to the ball movement that took place on Saturday. There were fewer isolation attacks and far more touches in the paint. Everything was moving toward the rim. Whether it was an Egwu post look or a drive by Abrams, Illinois was taking high percentage shots.

The players fed off the crowd and played their most intense game of the season.

“Our togetherness changed,” Tracy Abrams said. “We understood you gotta keep fighting, keep grinding each possession.”

Illinois did just that, hustling down the floor, battling for every loose ball and even sacrificing its bodies when necessary (Bertrand dove over the scorer’s table right in front of me at one point and almost crushed a dude’s laptop).

No one wants to hear about moral victories in the midst of a seven-game losing skid, but you’d have to be a fool to ignore the progress that took place on Saturday. Illinois stopped talking about togetherness and toughness and started demonstrating it.

There’s finally something to take away from a loss for the Illini. Groce took risks, mixing and matching youthful lineups, and the results were encouraging. Maybe he found something in Nunn and Hill that’s more than a flash-in-the-pan. The duo combined for 14 points and five assists in only 24 minutes. Maybe he found something in letting Bertrand get his turn as the primary ball handler. Maybe the team realized what ball movement and unselfish play can accomplish.

Yes, Illinois is 13-9 and light years away from an NCAA tournament berth, but this team showed the grit, toughness and selflessness necessary to be an upper-tier team. There’s no shame in that.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.