Illinois upsets No. 11 Maryland behind inspired, intense play

In one play, Illinois senior center Nnanna Egwu personified the toughness and grit his team showed all game in a 64-57 win over No. 11 Maryland on Wednesday night at State Farm Center.

It came when the Illini led 52-39 with 5:30 left to play, when no sane Illinois fan could feel completely comfortable with a 13-point lead, given the team’s track record in the second half this season.

Maryland had the ball and entered it in the post to skilled big man Jake Layman. Layman attempted to post up and shoot over Egwu, who held his ground, forcing Layman to kick the ball back out to the perimeter.

The rock ended up in the hands of the Terps’ stud point guard Melo Trimble, and Egwu was forced to come out and guard Trimble on the perimeter off a switch in what seemed like a mismatch. Egwu didn’t fall for Trimble’s fakes, so Trimble decided to use his speed to blow by the Illini big man.

Egwu moved his feet, matched his opponent step-for-step, and swatted Trimble’s layup back where it came from. 

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    On a night when Illinois was missing its star guard Rayvonte Rice for the first time in 50 games due to injury, when it was out-matched size-wise against a Maryland team that had only lost one game all season, the Illini responded with an extraordinary performance. 

    If you didn’t watch the game, find a replay of Egwu’s defensive wizardry with 5:30 to play. That’s the type of hustle that this game was all about.

    “I thought our effort was unbelievable,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “I thought our guys’ effort was inspiring for the longest period of time it’s been all year.” 

    While Egwu played with a relentless motor, racking up 11 points, nine boards and four blocks, his teammates stepped up in a big way as well.

    Sophomore Malcolm Hill was a beast offensively, putting the team on his back with a career-high 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting. He was the main contributor in a massive 24-6 Illini run to open the second half, and said he hadn’t been that “locked in” since high school. 

    In the first half, the Illini hung tough with the Terps, but poor shot selection and 29 percent shooting sent them into the break trailing 28-26. While the defensive intensity from Illinois was there all night, something clicked offensively after halftime. 

    And whatever clicked for Illinois, it failed for Maryland. Trimble scored nine points in the first half but was 2-for-7 shooting the ball in the second. Terps star Dez Wells was nowhere to be found, and finished with a quiet six points. Only a barrage of late threes from the Terrapins kept their second half scoring performance respectable.

    Maryland’s struggles came from its inability to figure out Illinois’ ever-changing defensive sets. Groce did a masterful job of switching from zone to man to press and back again, all of which smothered the Terrapins and left them disoriented on the court. Egwu wasn’t the only Illini player locking up out there. Every single Illinois player who took the floor appeared to give maximum effort on the defensive end. 

    Groce’s adjustments weren’t limited to the defensive end of the floor. He inserted sophomore point guard Jaylon Tate in the starting lineup for the first time in place of Ahmad Starks, and it paid off. Tate played 31 minutes, operating his offense smoothly and finishing with 10 points, four assists and only one turnover. Four of Tate’s points came in the form of critical free throws down the stretch.

    Illinois played its most complete game of the season, Groce coached his best game of the season and the Illini came away with its biggest win of the season so far.

    I’m still trying to comprehend how Illinois looked so good, so intense without its best player. The best explanation I can come up with is (similar to Groce’s first two seasons) when adversity knocked, the Illini answered.

    “We talked about playing inspired,” Egwu said after the game. “Unfortunately, Ray had to go down. But I think we really drew some inspiration from him.”

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.