All basketball games have a pace or flow to them. Fluid and rhythmic at times, grinding and mechanical at others. A game of runs it is often said. But every basketball play also brings with it a unique context. The flow and those runs are made up of a collection of moments - and those individual moments are often fascinating. So today, instead of a traditional post-game write-up I thought I would use my uniquely close vantage point on press row to chronicle some of those moments as they unfolded over the course of the game. My inspiration for this came from college basketball writer Brendan Quinn, who in The Athletic, recently documented games in a similar fashion - focusing solely on Michigan head coach John Beilein and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. It was a compelling read to me, and I hope you find this accounting equally so.
Today's Illinois/Rutgers game was a generally wide open affair - with equal parts tough shotmaking and lackluster defense. Yet it was nothing if not entertaining. It featured a record breaking scoring performance by Illini freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and ended with a 99-94 Illini win in overtime. Here's how today unfolded - in moments...
20:00 -The Illini starters are Aaron Jordan, Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Da'Monte Williams, and Bezhanishvili. The State Farm Center is already quite loud and looks close to being filled to capacity. Amazing what a win against a top 10 opponent does for fan interest. Illini head coach Brad Underwood stands by himself on the baseline collecting his thoughts during the starting line-up festivities.
18:48 -Underwood is up and out of his chair for the first time this afternoon. He feels it necessary to let referee DJ Carstensen know that Rutgers guard Geo Baker pushes off on his defender "every time he has the ball". Carstensen surely heard Underwood's protestations, but refuses to get drawn into a debate just a minute into the game.
18:15 -Rutgers converts their first basket on an lob dunk to Shaq Doorson. Underwood calmly reminds Williams that baseline was his responsibility.
17:20 -After Trent Frazier passes up an open three in favor of a contested step back option - which he makes - Underwood gets his attention and encourages him to shoot the first one next time. The Illini lead 7-2.
17:02 - Tevian Jones is the first Illini substitution of the afternoon - spelling Aaron Jordan who Underwood wants to chat with about missed defensive assignments on two consecutive possessions. "That's twice!" he tells his senior guard.
14:40 -Jones misses a one hand dunk attempt off a lob pass - that would have been kind of spectacular - but a lay-up attempt was probably the better option. Underwood is not amused.
13:28 - Jordan bumps Baker at the top of the floor and is called for a foul, Underwood pleads his case - arguing that the contact had no impact on the play. Carstensen is having none of it. "A FOUL IS A FOUL!"
12:37 -After two consecutive empty possessions - both marked by poor shot selection - Underwood turns to his assistant coaches with a quizzical look, and then pleads with any player in earshot: "Can we run something?"
10:34 -Kipper Nichols air balls a short jump shot, Rutgers freshman Caleb McConnell knocks down a three to give the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the day at 19-17. Underwood wants to talk about it - and calls time out. After breaking the huddle he stoops down in front of Nichols to tell him that his lay-up attempt "had no business down there."
8:34 -Rutgers - who came into this game as one of the worst shooting teams in the country - has just scored on two consecutive possessions. Underwood looks at his bench and says to no one in particular "We are so soft"
6:59 - Alan Griffin converts a rebound putback to give Illinois a 32-27 lead and Underwood is pleased with the effort - offering up a point and a fist pump to the freshman.
5:36 - Underwood is asking official Chris Beaver to curtail Geo Baker's tendency of pushing off his defender, while Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell is pleading with a different official - Keith Kimble - to keep Illinois' hands off his ball-handlers. This appears to be an "eye of the beholder" situation. Pikiell is coaching with a heavy heart - his mother passed away earlier in the day.
4:39 - Illini guard Andres Feliz is in the midst of a tough stretch - following up a forced shot with a bad turnover. Underwood signals to Trent Frazier: "Go get him".
3:53 - A Myles Johnson layup gives Rutgers a 37-35 lead. Rutgers is now shooting 61% for the half. Underwood looks left and right quizzically at both Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua and shakes his head.
2:06 - Bezhanishvili makes an ill-advised attempt at dribbling the ball up the floor after a defensive rebound and promptly turns it over. Rutgers converts a layup off the turnover for a 43-40 lead. Giorgi is the recipient of a long stare down from his head coach.
HALF TIME - Trent Frazier misses a three on the last Illini possession of the half and they head to the locker room trailing 45-42. A solid offensive performance was negated by porous Illini defense in to be fair - some really tough shot making by Rutgers.
16:29 -The Illini are making a concerted effort to run offense through their freshman big man and Bezhanishvili is responding. He has scored the last six Illini points and is keeping them afloat. It's 52-51 Rutgers.
15:55 -Underwood wants the Illini to run "ZIPPER" - which immediately prompts Pikiell to yell out the Illini play call to his defense, and urge them to "ICE" the screen (push the ball-handler far out to the sideline). Rutgers execution is poor, though, as Dosunmu escapes the sideline and finds Aaron Jordan on the other side of the floor and he knocks down a three. 54-54.
13:53 -Adonis De La Rosa steals the ball at half court and lumbers his way to the basket for the lay-up attempt. He misses - but is flagrantly fouled across his face and crashes awkwardly into the basket stanchion. Underwood is as fired up as he's been all afternoon - excited for the effort of his big man. After testing his knee stability several times - De La Rosa converts both free throws. Illinois leads 58-56, but turns it over on the ensuing inbounds play. Brad Underwood walks back to the bench saying "My fault - my fault", but when he subs for Tevian Jones he gives the freshman an earful for not diving after the loose ball on the play.
11:06 - McConnell - on his way to a career high 25 points - converts a jump shot for Rutgers, and draws a shooting foul. Underwood - who thought McConnell pushed off to create the space (a recurring theme today) - stands with his arms wide open - and simply says "WOW!"
9:07 -Bezhanishvili has fully taken over this game for Illinois - scoring 7 of the last 9 Illini points. Rutgers is hesitant to bring a double team, and they are paying for it. Giorgi finishes off a three point play to give Illinois its largest second half lead at 72-65.
8:32 -Alan Griffin has a clean look from three to extend the Illini lead to double digits for the first time today. No good. Illinois just can't put Rutgers away this afternoon.
5:28 -The Illinois lead is 76-74. Dosunmu has been sitting with four fouls since the 12:28 mark. Underwood looks at his freshman guard - and says "Go get it."
3:19 -Bezhanishvili again. He has the full arsenal on display, and has scored the last 13 Illinois points. His 26th and 27th points of the afternoon give Illinois an 80-77 lead. Brad Underwood wants a time out - to give his team a breather - he would say in the post game press conference.
1:57 - Illinois runs their best set play of the day coming out of a timeout - with Ayo driving and rifling a pass over his shoulder to a wide open Aaron Jordan in the corner. The senior splashes in the three and the Illini lead is 85-82.
00:10 -After Dosunmu hits one of two free throws, Ron Harper, Jr hits a tough driving bank shot to tie the game at 86 - and Dosunmu has his potential game winner blocked. Overtime.
4:04 in OT -Rutgers scores the first two baskets of the extra period and leads 90-86. As Dosunmu brings the ball up the floor, Underwood gives his team a "calm down" hand gesture. They go through Giorgi again - and he flips in a reverse layup to get the Illini on the board in OT.
3:25 in OT - The Illini run a quick hitter on a baseline out of bounds play - and Frazier nails the three and the Illini have their first overtime lead at 91-90.
2:00 in OT - Bezhanishvili shovels in a short jumper in the lane to give Illinois a 95-92 lead. That gives him 35 for the day - which just happens to be an Illinois freshman single game scoring record that had stood for 29 years. The former record holder - Illinois radio commentator Deon Thomas - gives Giorgi a thumbs up. After the game when asked about breaking Thomas' record - Giorgi responded with an apology: "I told him I was sorry - it wasn't intentional". The kid is a treasure.
00:35 in OT -It's 99-94 Illinois after two Feliz free throws. Rutgers calls a 30 second time out. If this young Illini team was feeling pressure you wouldn't know it. Michael Jackson's "Beat It" is playing over the SFC sound system and the Illini bench is...dancing. Underwood subs in Williams for Feliz on defense and the sophomore responds - fighting to corral a crucial defensive rebound.
00:00 - Rutgers misses four 3-point attempts in the final 20 seconds and Illinois escapes with a 99-94 win. Eugene Omoruyi gives Bezhanishvili a little shove as time expires. Giorgi walks away clapping, but Feliz rushes in to get in Omoruyi's face. After some cursory pushing and shoving, order is restored and the handshake line ensues without further incident.
It's Giorgi's world. He's the last Illini player on the floor. A post-game interview with Steve Bardo on BTN. Pictures with Deon Thomas. Celebrating with Krush. And then lastly - he finds his brother. Davit Bezhanishvili, visiting from Vienna, Austria, was in the house all week as the Illini swept a three game home stand. Today, though, was the last one on his trip. The two share an embrace, and then the man of the hour turns and walks back into the tunnel with chants of "Giorgi - Giorgi- Giorgi" echoing throughout the State Farm Center.