Here’s my column from last night on the loss to Illinois:
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — I’ll be perfectly honest.
Entering Thursday night’s game at the other Assembly Hall, I thought an Illinois team that had lost six of its last seven games might have a glass chin.
If Indiana could knock the Illini down early and often, they might not get back up — or so my perfectly reasoned thinking went.
As it turns out, we’ll never really know if that was true, because the Hoosiers didn’t pack enough punch to find out.
Rather, IU seemed content to settle for a unanimous decision and instead wound up with its collective keester on the canvas as the final bell rang, the Illini chalking up a stunning knockout of No. 1 in the process.
It was one of those, “I didn’t see that coming” results, but maybe that’s because we ignored some of the telltale signs of danger along the way.
The Hoosiers have played this sort of game with some regularity this season — not that unusual for talented teams — building a lead then fighting off the underdog’s comeback attempt.
And by and large they’ve been successful, the loss to Butler and heart palpitations of the Minnesota game not withstanding.
But on the road, with a potentially hostile crowd looking for a reason to get involved in a game, it’s playing with fire.
There was nothing at the outset of the game to portend such an outcome. The normally raucous Illinois crowd seemed particularly timid and tame on this evening with a healthy sprinkling of red throughout.
It was almost as if they were expecting a beating more than hoping for an upset.
For the first 10-12 minutes, Illinois played favored Indiana to a draw, but slowly and surely the Hoosiers’ cream began to rise to the top.
The IU lead stretched to seven with four minutes to play in the half, and with it came the first test of Illinois’ ability to take a punch.
On the ensuing possession, a teammate missed an open Brandon Paul on the right wing in front of the Indiana bench, prompting the Illini senior to jump and down like a kid told no in a candy store. Seconds later, Will Sheehey made a steal, and the Illini staggered as the Hoosiers pushed the lead to 14 following a Sheehey dunk.
But when the emotional
sophomore junior cut loose with a yell right in the face of Illinois’ Tyler Griffey, he was hit with a technical foul that served to snap IU’s momentum before a standing eight-count could be given.
The Illini got four points on the exchange and what might have been a halftime lead of 15 or more was just 12.
The second half was a game of hide and seek with Illinois creeping close, only to see IU open up a little daylight.
Again the lead reached 14 on a Sheehey dunk with 12:50 remaining. The Illini called time out, again teetering against the ropes.
It was at that moment, that Hanner Mosquera-Perea entered the game for Cody Zeller. As IU coach Tom Crean turned and told his bench, “Cody can’t play all 40 minutes.”
But maybe it would have been different if Zeller had played just two more right then, because D.J. Richardson drove around the freshman for a layup on the next Illinois possession. Then Sam McLaurin backed Perea down and converted a three-point play that trimmed the deficit to nine, again escaping a potential Hoosier haymaker.
But those moments were easy to overlook as the lead see-sawed from eight to 13 points over the next eight minutes.
Still, IU was doing its damage without getting to the free-throw line. Averaging 27 trips to the line per game, the Hoosiers got there just 14 times on the night, perhaps one sign of the missing aggressiveness necessary to put the Illini out of their misery.
The lead was nine points with over three and a half minutes left. Those turned out to be a very long 213 seconds, as Illinois finished the game on a 13-2 run.
The Hoosiers’ ascension to the top ranking had also been in no small part due to defense, with an emphasis on getting three straight stops. They got only one stop down the stretch, then completed the inexplicable collapse with a stunning bit of miscommunication that caught them with their hands down.
And the result was a punch Indiana could not take.