Illini basketball can’t keep up with No. 7 Villanova

By Sean Neumann

The Illini hung in the game late, but it wasn’t enough.

Illinois (7-2) fell to No. 7 Villanova (9-0) Tuesday night, 73-59, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Tuesday’s loss was Illinois’ second in three games and its second against a ranked opponent this season.

Illini forward Malcolm Hill had a career-high 20 points, but the individual offensive effort wasn’t enough. Illinois shot 29.4 percent from 3-point range, another difficult game shooting for the team as of late.

Illinois struggled rebounding the ball in the first half, despite holding a height advantage over the Wildcats’ frontcourt.

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Senior center Nnanna Egwu knew how tough the Wildcats forwards were rebounding the ball prior to the game.

“They rebound excellent,” Egwu said before Friday’s practice. The center said the Illini big men needed to match Villanova’s intensity on the glass.

But the Wildcats held a 21-13 advantage on the boards at halftime, giving them an 11-0 edge in second-chance points in the first half, allowing them to take a 33-27 lead into the break.

Illinois came out strong in the second half, tying the game at 38-38 and then again at 50-50.

But the Illini couldn’t keep the Wildcats down, allowing them to shoot 54.7 percent from the floor and pull away from Illinois every time the score got close.

Villanova finished the game on a 23-9 run in the final minutes after the Illini tied the game with fewer than 10 minutes remaining.

Both teams came into the game with seven players averaging more than seven points per game, and Villanova spread the ball around — four players finished in double figures (Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard, Dylan Ennis and Josh Hart).

Illinois had just two players in double-figures: Hill and senior guard Rayvonte Rice.

Hill has more than tripled his scoring production from last season, when he averaged 4.4 points per game, surpassing his season-high scoring total from last year in every game so far this season.

The power forward came into Tuesday night’s game averaging 13.9 points.

Hill’s 20 points in Tuesday’s loss helped keep Illinois in the game with another poor offensive performance from starting guards Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks.

The two transfers have had trouble in the team’s games against ranked opponents, shooting 25 percent from the floor and beyond the arc Tuesday. The pair had eight points compared to seven turnovers.

Illinois will undoubtedly look for more offensive production out of its guards heading into another game against a power conference opponent Saturday when the team takes on Oregon (5-3) at the United Center in Chicago.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Neumannthehuman.