Every year, there are one or two Illini games that for whatever reason I am unable to watch. I will always tape the game, but if it’s a loss the first task upon returning home is to delete it immediately. Last night’s game was the one I’d have to miss this season, and it sounds like it was for the best.
I had committed to helping a friend by volunteering at a Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation gala months ago, and it didn’t seem right to cancel just for a basketball game – even I have my limits, even if there is a slim margin. Luckily, I was able to volunteer for the task that involved sitting in front of a door that no one could enter but the staff and the foundation members. That allowed me to sit down for a good span of time with my phone in hand watching the game updates on ESPN while simultaneously checking out what people were saying on Twitter. Despite my attention to the game, not one person got through that door that wasn’t supposed to!
From what I saw on my phone, the game looked intense. Minnesota seemed to have it somewhat under control hanging on to a 5 to 7-point lead throughout most of the game. Then, Illinois tied up the game with 8 minutes to go. After that point, Illinois seemed to hold on to a small lead, which helped me to relax a bit. Two Brandon Paul free throws put the Illini up by 3 points with 12 seconds to go and I had the silly thought that maybe this game would go my way. My phone updated to show me that Austin Hollins made a layup with 5 seconds to go, leaving the Illini still up by a point. That was fine, .05 seconds left,, a 1-point lead, and the ball means the game is over and I can put the phone down and let someone else take the crucial job of sitting by that important door.
Then, Twitter informed me that Meyers Leonard had fouled Hollins, and a free throw was on the way. It was all I could do not to throw the phone across the room. Why did he foul?!!!! A layup is still going to leave the Illini with the lead and the ball. Even if Minnesota was gonna foul us, that would mean two free throws, and about two more seconds off the clock. The chances that Minneosta would run down and make a 3 pointer (which probably would be necessary whether or not both free throws would be made) was probably not going to happen. The. game. was. over. To make matters worse, that was the fifth foul from Leonard. BUT, Hollins made the free throw and then we headed into overtime.
I had to stop watching my phone at that point, because my efforts to support the team from way afar made no difference. They were overpowered in overtime, and despite late game heroics by Tracy Abrams and Paul, Minnesota got the win 77-72.
Looking at the stats, it doesn’t seem like an awful game for Illinois. Paul was close to a double double with 28 points and 9 rebounds, but its those 6 turnovers that are killing us. Leonard had another double double with 17 points and 13 rebounds, but he fouled out. The bench finally contributed some points with 9, but Minnesota had 39 bench points. 39! Illinois was also 19-29 on free throws, and had 16 total turnovers. Same problems as we always see every single game.
As I said, I didn’t see the game, so my judgments are sort of skewed. I read that Bruce Weber mentioned that the last foul on Leonard was questionable, but I’ve heard others say it was legit. Why on Earth was he even close to being in a position to foul? In my eyes, that game was won even if Hollins made that easy layup. What was Minnesota going to accomplish down by a point with 5 seconds left without the ball? It wasn’t a done deal, but it was pretty close. A road win last night would’ve put the Illini right back into the race for… I don’t know, at least a spot in the Tourney. Now they’ve lost three in a row – two of which (if not all) were entirely winable. They haven’t won a single game since that great win at home against OSU, and the schedule just gets tougher and tougher. I will never ever throw in the towel on my team, but like the football team, a miracle needs to happen for this season to turn back around in the right direction. That miracle didn’t happen for the football team, and it’s probably not going to happen for the basketball team either.
I’m just so tired of the seasons ending in this manner. What we did a month ago simply will not matter to the Tournament Committee, which puts tons more stock in what happens at the end of the season.Here we are for the third season in a row back on the bubble, without a lot of clear skies ahead.
Tuesday, Michigan State will head to Champaign, and hands down this is a must-win situation. Although, really every game moving forward is a must-win situation, so let’s see how the team steps up.