The Illinois Fighting Illini once again found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Illini (19-13) relinquished a 12 point second half lead in a 60-55 loss to the Michigan Wolverines (20-12) in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals. Darius Morris led all scorers with 17 points, including 8 big ones down the stretch for the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 16 for Michigan, who will move on to play Ohio State in the Semifinals.
As for Illinois, I really don’t know where to begin. I had seen this movie before, but even several hours after the game, I’m still in shock. I have seen a lot of bad Illinois losses in my time (UIC, 38-33, Miami (OH) to name a few), but this one ranks right up there.
I guess I’ll start with some of the positives (believe it or not there were some). Despite getting off to a slow start, the Illini fought back and took command of the game in the first half. Brandon Paul came off the bench and provided a major spark. He was all over the place and filled up the stat sheet. Bill Cole was also key in the first half run, hitting two big threes. Cole had been struggling mightily with his shot, and it was good to see him find it.
The Illini closed the first half with a 20-6 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. It could have been even more, but Demetri McCamey missed the front end of a one-and-one at the very end of the half. I was worried that would turn out to be a bad omen. Unfortunately, I was right.
The second half started with the teams trading points. After a Paul three, the Illini had a 51-39 lead with just over 8:30 left in the game. They were ready to blow the game wide open. But as they have nearly all season, the Illini began to falter (this is where it gets ugly).
Right after Paul’s three, Mike Tisdale fell asleep on defense and allowed Evan Smotrycz to answer with a three of his own. The Illinois offense then proceeded to shut down (which has happened WAY too often in Bruce Weber’s tenure). Over the next five minutes, Michigan clawed back to tie the game at 51. During that span, the Illinois possessions resulted in: bricked three, moving screen, turnover, turnover, missed layup, air-balled three, bricked three, and air-balled jump shot. There was little movement in the motion offense and few inside touches (despite a HUGE height advantage). ESPN commentator Dan Dakich noted several times that the Illini just stopped running offense. That is just inexcusable in a game of this magnitude.
Despite that horrific stretch, the Illini still had a chance to win. With around two minutes left, they had the ball with the score tied at 53. But as we have seen all too often, the Illini could not get a shot off. Tisdale fumbled a pass (not surprising), and Hardaway Jr. buried a three at the other end. Michigan would not give up the lead the rest of the way.
As much as I was shocked by the turn of events, I really shouldn’t have been. This team has proven time and time again that they cannot handle prosperity. In countless games this year, they have gotten leads only to see them evaporate late in games. Whether it’s turnovers, defensive lapses, or missing shots, the Illini have perfected the art of losing close games.
The sad thing is that this is a pretty talented bunch. It’s obvious because they have stretches where they can play with anybody. But they are missing two key things: toughness and leadership. Nobody steps up when the game is on the line. It’s supposed to be McCamey, and I really thought he would raise his play in the postseason. He really disappointed me today. His last points came with just under 14 minutes left in the game. In those last 14 minutes, he took two shots. That simply doesn’t cut it for your supposed senior leader. When the offense stagnated, he should have tried to take over and will his team to victory. That didn’t happen.
So… now what? With extra at-large teams and a weak bubble, the Illini are still likely headed to the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think they really deserve it, but I will still cheer hard for them no matter what. They are probably looking at a double digit seed, which is a far cry from early season projections. This team has been a major disappointment, but could change things with a tournament run. They are certainly talented enough to do so, but I won’t get my hopes up.
About the Author
Written by Jason Patt
My name is Jason Patt and I recently graduated from the University of Illinois. I received a degree in Sports Management and also minored in Communication and Business. I am an avid follower of Illinois sports and also most major Chicago sports teams. Along with blogging about Illini basketball here, I'm an editor at Bulls 101.