After Illinois fought off a late UNLV comeback in a 77-74 win at the State Farm Center this afternoon, Kipper Nichols was asked about the game's final eight minutes - in which the Illini allowed the Running Rebels to turn a 14 point second half deficit into a single possession game by the final minute of play. Nichols offered this response:
"What happened was very important for us. I think in those last three or four minutes I think we grew up. We grew as a team."
When asked a similar question Illinois head coach Brad Underwood did not exactly agree with Nichols' perspective. "You have to take charge in those moments," he said. "We experienced that last year."
So wherein lies the truth? Should the fact that Illinois was able to do just enough down the stretch to eke out this much needed win be viewed as a net positive, or was the second half collapse indicative of more struggles ahead?
I'm not 100% sure myself, but I think I lean more towards Kipper's take on things. I do believe a team has to learn how to win together - no matter how ugly those wins might look.
I think sometimes we forget that every stat has a human element. The numbers don't just magically appear in the box score after the game. Statistics aren't all created equal - each has nuance and context. How a player reacts and performs in a given moment is indelibly shaped by the flow and circumstance of the moment at hand, and you saw that today in those final eight minutes.
The box score has immense value in shaping insight into the objective strengths and weaknesses of a team, but I don't believe you can quantify "learning how to win". That only comes with trial by fire, and I still believe that's a thing in basketball - no matter how deeply I immerse myself in advanced metrics.
In Illinois' case today this was a team that doesn't yet know how to win or how to trust itself, and that was all too apparent down the stretch. It's also no accident that Underwood leaned heavily on the only player on his roster who has experienced success at the collegiate (albeit JUCO) level - junior point guard Andres Feliz.
Feliz had career highs in both minutes played and points scored and the ball in his hands repeatedly down the stretch. Underwood did not sub Feliz out of the game after the 10:00 mark.
Protecting a lead in the final minutes is a dangerous game. Approach it too passively and you risk playing yourself out of a natural rhythm. Play too aggressively and players often try to do too much - forcing things under the guise of "attacking". There were instances of both in this game, and the Illini were very fortunate to hold on to the lead. But win they did - in a game that was as much of a must win situation as any 2-7 team could find itself.
Today marked the first of four straight winnable games, and over that stretch we'll get a chance to see if Kipper or Underwood was more accurate in assessing the team's response to today's events.
+ Today was kind of a Bizarro game, with UNLV winning the turnover margin and outscoring Illinois 23-16 in points off turnovers, while Illinois was uncharacteristically dominant in converting at the rim - shooting almost 60% on two point field goals and scoring 40 points in the paint.
+ Of course I have Samba takes. He dunked and Dikembed his way across 16 thoroughly entertaining minutes. Giorgi B was officially put on notice by today's SambaFest - the race for 2019 State Farm Center fan favorite is officially up for grabs.
+ Samba and Giorgi combined for 17 points in 38 minutes of play. That is fantastic production from the two freshman big men.
+ They also combined for a grand total of 3 rebounds. That is not.
+ A really cool moment after the game when Samba got together with his fellow Senegalese countryman Cheikh Mbacke Diong from UNLV for a post game get together and photo. The two were also teammates at prep school in Florida. Kane was practically beaming in the post game press conference when talking both about his performance in this game and about meeting up with Diong.
+ We are now at three games in a row with an acceptable 2PA field goal percentage on defense! Dare I call it a trend? In fact today's effort was downright excellent - with UNLV only making 39% of it's two point attempts. To be fair, UNLV was bereft of any shot makers on offense, but they did have the size and length to be effective at the rim, but Illinois did enough to bother them there - blocking a season high six shots on the afternoon. Three of those came from... freshman Alan Griffin? And in just 11 minutes no less! Maybe he should take finger wagging lessons from Samba.
+ A hearty congratulations to the Final Four bound Women's Volleyball team. There was a basketball alumni reunion after the game today in the State Farm Center Club 53 - and all in attendance were riveted by that final clinching set. I don't know much about volleyball but THAT'S a team which knows how to win. Good luck in Minny ladies.
+ And finally, simply - any game with Coach Henson in attendance is a great one.