By: Grant Labedz
The Illini took a hopeful venture to Mackey Arena in need of a big win to bolster up a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. Currently one of Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out,” the Illini could not afford to lose this one on the road. Though the Fighting Illini played tough from tip to finish, they were unable to pull off the victory in West Lafayette, and as a result, the NCAA Tournament seems to be further away than ever for a team that has battled through suspensions and injuries all season long.
Illinois started the game in Mackey on a positive note, hitting from all over the court in the first half. Though AJ Hammons of Purdue scored the first bucket of the game, the Illini rattled off 13 unanswered points to take a double-digit lead over the Boilermakers. Rayvonte Rice hit his first four shots, including a step-back three pointer from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down.
Though the Boilermakers finally ended a 7 minute drought with two three point buckets, the Illini kept the foot on the accelerator and got out to a 22-10 lead with a monster dunk by Rayvonte Rice. Illinois would extend its lead all the way to 13 before the Boilermakers made their first run. Illinois slowly watched its double-digit lead dwindle as the Boilermakers finally got going. Purdue went on an 8-0 run to close the second half, and the Illini lead was down to 5 going into the break.
One of the biggest plays of the first half in Purdue’s favor was a steal and lay-up by P.J. Thompson. After receiving the inbound pass, Jaylon Tate walked right into his defender, Thompson, who ripped the ball right off his hands and finished with authority. Coach Groce noted that “P.J. Thompson changed the momentum of the game with that steal,” and he was a major contribution to the Boilermakers off the bench with 7 points and 3 steals.
Purdue certainly had the momentum going into the halftime locker room, and nothing changed at the start of the second half. Purdue fired off 5 quick points to tie the game at 26 before Illinois grew their lead back up to 4. John Groce thought that out of the gates in the second half, “guys were jogging and getting beat on transition buckets.” As a result, Purdue got going and eventually took the lead and grew it to double digits. All of a sudden, the Illini, who led by as many as 13 in the first half, were down by as many as 13 in the second half.
Subsequently, a scoring drought ensued, as the Illini were getting beat down the floor and were unable to get any offensive flow working in the second half. Purdue would maintain a double digit lead as it tried to outlast the Fighting Illini. When it looked as if the game was over, Purdue committed a number of unlikely turnovers. Illinois, after being down by 13 with less than 3 minutes to play, found itself with the ball, down 5, with 8 seconds to play. Though they were unable to pull off the victory, the Illini fought until the very end.
One certainly frustrating aspect of Illinois’ game is the inability to play 40 solid minutes of basketball. Groce said that his team needs to figure out a way to “bottle up the first 16 minutes of that game, and play that hard throughout.” Too many times this year we’ve seen the Illini obtain a solid lead and give it right back. When asked whether or not this game drew any parallels to the road loss against Michigan, Groce thought that it was “different” in the sense that Purdue took control much earlier in the game than did Michigan earlier this season.
The Illini turned the ball over 14 times, some of which, Groce described as 50-50 type turnovers, like the one in which Kendrick Nunn stepped on the baseline early in the first half, but others, Groce thought were “particularly concerning.” “P.J. Thompson dismantled our offense by forcing some live ball turnovers in the first half, and that led to Purdue’s 8-0 run,” said Groce.
John Groce thought that his team played together with good ball movement, but he noted that everyone on his team has to play well if they want to win. “Ray is back,” said Groce, “but other guys need to step up and play well.” Rice scored 25 of the Illini’s 58 points. The rest of the team shot just 9-44 from the field (20%), including Kendrick Nunn who hit just 2 of his 12 shots from the field.
It is undeniable that Illinois will need to figure itself out come Thursday when it will face off against Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Unfortunately, a win against the Boilermakers would have granted the Illini a 7 seed, but now, the Illini will have to face the Badgers second round if they manage to beat Michigan.
“Are guys are certainly disappointed, but not discouraged. We need to get our guys some rest over these next couple of days and be ready to go come Thursday,” said Groce. As the NCAA Tournament seems somewhat distant at this point, Illinois still has the Big Ten Tournament to prove himself. Nnanna Egwu thinks that his team “can win the Big Ten Tournament,” so don’t expect him or the rest of his teammates to go down without a fight.
TNT Player of the Game: Rayvonte Rice (25 points, 3 rebound