This will be a quick one. It's 1:30 in the morning and I have to work tomorrow (er, later today). But I might not be able to sleep because I'm so jazzed about an Illini loss. When is the last time you were encouraged by a loss? Feels like forever, right?
For those of you who didn't stay up, a quick recap. We hung around and hung around and hung around with #3 Gonzaga in the first half, mostly led by Giorgi and his repertoire of post moves. Right before the half, Gonzaga hit two big threes and pushed out to a seven point lead (actually I think one of them was changed to a two because we were down two, then we were down seven). It was mostly Giorgi scoring, plus some Jordan threes, plus some Ayo. Trent only had two points at the break and looked like he was still in a fog.
Then Gonzaga quickly pushed out to a 13 point lead in the second half and we all thought about going to bed. It was past midnight, Gonzaga was favored by 14.5, it looked like that was the direction the game was headed.
Then, some Trent happened. Long story short, a 13 point lead became two, and we even had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. I believe that was the play where Trent drove the lane and dished to Giorgi but Giorgi wasn't looking. That's OK, right? Still down two with about 3:00 to go.
Then, suddenly, we're down 10 again. Gonzaga hit a bunch of threes and we were finished. BUT WERE WE? Alan Griffin drives the lane and scores. Alan Griffin hits a big three. Gonzaga travels. Trent comes down, hits a three, and gets fouled. Now there's 1:00 to go and we're only down two! And - AND - we force Gonzaga into a shot clock violation, meaning there's 30 second left, we have the ball, down two, against the #3 team in the country, Trent dribbles down the shot clock to about 10 seconds, puts a great step-back on his defender (the guy bought the step and we moving backwards), releases the three that might win the game....
(Air ball. We foul Gonzaga, they hit both free throws, Trent gets a desperation three blocked with 4 second left leading to a Gonzaga dunk at the buzzer, Gonzaga wins by six.)
OK, now you're caught up. If you missed it, you really missed something. So much fight from these Illini. In the second half they just wouldn't go down. A Final Four favorite keeps pushing us away, annoyed that this pesky little 14-18 team just won't go away. The final comeback with two minutes left was fed a bunch of Gonzaga mistakes - "WOULD JUST JUST STOP PESTERING US" mistakes.
I'm struggling to think of a recent Illini game with more fight. We just would not go away. The announcers were talking about it. Twitter was talking about it. Half the country is asleep but here we are going toe to toe with #3.
Now, does it mean anything? Like, are we a tournament team if we can hang with #3 and have a shot to win with 10 seconds left? I don't think so. We're still so young. Kipper and Feliz were both in foul trouble (both had four fouls and Kipper onlt played 9 minutes while Feliz played 16), and De La Rosa only played five minutes, so the rotation was basically Aaron Jordan and the underclassmen.
And that's the lineup that led to the comeback. With Ayo, Kipper, and Feliz all having four fouls, it was Trent - Da'Monte - Griffin - Jordan - Giorgi on the floor for the furious comeback. Sophomore - sophomore - freshman - senior - freshman. The Illini scored 78 points - 16 from the upperclassmen and 62 from the underclassmen.
That's what has me so excited after a loss. It's two-fold.
1. We were led by the freshmen and sophomores who are only going to get better.
2. Those freshmen and sophomores fought and fought and fought some more.
Yes, there's probably a rough road between here and where we want to be. We're still crazy young and inexperienced, and we'll probably lay an egg tomorrow after such an emotional roller coaster tonight. That's usually how it goes for teams with eight newcomers. Have to build it.
But the bricks we're building with are so encouraging.
- Trent Frazier, 29 points and 5 steals, with the ESPN commentators saying he was the "best player they saw in Maui today".
- Giorgi Bezhanishvili, 17 points and 6 rebounds. We expected Matic Vesel and we've gotten (I'm gonna get crazy but it's late so forgive me)... freshman year James Augustine?
- Alan Griffin, more or less forced into action once Ayo and Feliz had four fouls, puts up 7 points on 2-2 shooting (1-1 from three) and 2-2 from the line (in a massive one-and-one situation with the Gonzaga crowd screaming their heads off).
- Da'Monte Williams, king of the little things, with 9 rebounds and several big defensive plays including drawing at least two crucial charges.
- Ayo Dosunmu, with his worst game of the first three, still had 6 points and 3 assists (and some rebounds, and some steals) before foul trouble sat him down.
All of these players are freshmen or sophomores. Which means they're going to make a lot of mistakes this season and we'll need a lot of patience. But I don't think anyone could watch that game and not come away encouraged about the future. Sure, this will still probably be a rough season. There's a reason we're picked 13th in the conference. There are currently nine Big Ten teams in the top 28 spots in the AP poll (six teams ranked plus the first three under "receiving votes" are Big Ten teams). We're not going to be favored in many games this year. Someone told me today that KenPom has us favored in 3 Big Ten games and the underdog in the other 17 games. It's still going to be a long season.
But there's so much hope for what this looks like after the players have the necessary experience. They stood toe-to-toe with #3 tonight and were a three-pointer away from taking the lead with 10 seconds left. They will pester and they will fight and they will probably not end up 13th in the Big Ten. After three games, it feels like this thing has a real trajectory.
OK, now it's super late and I need to get to bed. But it's going to be hard. Because I'm still buzzing. Because we fought.