Second-half runs hurting Illini basketball

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Second-half runs hurting Illini basketball

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts to stop Indiana's Yogi Ferrell's (11) attempt on basket during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts to stop Indiana's Yogi Ferrell's (11) attempt on basket during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts to stop Indiana's Yogi Ferrell's (11) attempt on basket during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts to stop Indiana's Yogi Ferrell's (11) attempt on basket during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

By Sean Neumann

Staying in games has been an issue for the Illinois basketball team all season.

The Illini have been falling behind late in games since conference play began, especially coming off a string of injuries that saw top scorer and rebounder Rayvonte Rice go down with a broken hand just before junior guard Aaron Cosby was sidelined for up to two weeks with a retinal tear in his left eye.

Illinois essentially went into Minnesota with a seven-man roster — a major hurdle for a five-player sport that lasts 40 minutes. But senior center Nnanna Egwu had a one-word answer to the problem: “toughness.”

It’s been the standard since head coach John Groce came to Illinois three years ago, according to the senior.

“We’ve got the players to do what we’ve got to do,” Egwu said. “We understand that when one player goes down, the next man steps up.”

But with a depleted roster, the Illini have had their expected share of troubles as games have worn on. Players have been running out of gas, and the fear around the program is that the season is too. The lack of depth prompted Groce to add student manager Ryan Schmidt to the Illini roster last week. 

Second-half runs have killed the Illini as of late, losing five of their last eight games. The latest loss came at Minnesota, where Illinois let an 18-3 Gopher run push the contest out of reach.

“I thought that was the difference in the game,” Groce said after Saturday’s 79-71 loss. “The same thing happened to us in Columbus (against Ohio State on Jan. 3).”

Illinois let a first-half lead slip away against Ohio State during a 30-7 Buckeyes run that quickly took the Illini out of the game in the

second half.

And a 13-2 Indiana run was the difference in a back-and-forth game in Champaign on Jan. 18.

Despite having the guys to do what Egwu and the rest of the healthy Illini are fighting to accomplish with 10 games left in the regular season, Illinois has found struggles with the players it does have on the court.

The Illini have had offensive troubles in Rice and Cosby’s absence. The team shot just 32 percent in the first half against a struggling Minnesota team Saturday, trailing 33-30 at halftime.

“We’ve got to man up and stick the ball in the freakin’ basket more than that,” Groce said after the loss to the Golden Gophers. “Thirty-two percent’s not going to cut it.”

The third-year coach said there’s no excuses for the team’s 13-8 season so far.

“They play five, and we play five. Our guys have got to man up,” Groce said. “They’ve got to figure it out. We are who we are right now.”

And right now the Illini are thin.

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