The stage was set for a special night. #20 Illinois vs # 9 Maryland for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. The first game between two ranked teams in Champaign since 2013. The Orange Krush started lining up early in the afternoon. Campustown was also buzzing as the line to get into NEW-KAMS stretched a block long a full two hours before tipoff. A sold out State Farm Center was the epicenter of college basketball once again on this night. It was the perfect opportunity for Illinois to loudly announce their presence on the national scene. And...thud. Or maybe "clank" would be more appropriate. Two hours and 39 missed shots later, all the air was out of the balloon as Maryland walked off with a 75-66 win. Cue the Price Is Right trombone noise.
And the thing is - it could not have started better. The Illini surged to a 31-17 lead midway through the first half. Andres Feliz was getting downhill, Kofi Cockburn was dunking, the Maryland bench was losing it, DA'MONTE WILLIAMS WAS DRAINING THREES. The SFC was legitimately rocking - not that obligatory hometown cheering that a politely loyal crowd offers up to a 12 win team. This was "House of Paign" circa 2005 level rocking. It was fantastic.
Alas, the seeds of our discontent were soon planted. Trent Frazier went to the bench with his second foul with 12 minutes left to play in the half (more on that later). Cockburn would eventually follow him to the bench with his second foul. The Illini began leaving points out on the floor in a variety of unfortunate ways. Blown layups, missed free throws, unforced errors. A lot was made after the game about how Maryland switching to a 3-2 zone thoroughly disrupted the lllini offense and completely changed the course of the game.
I would offer that it's not exactly a surprise a zone would be effective when a team's best three point shooter and best rebounder are both on the bench. As Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said afterward - referencing that his zone was opportunistically effective: "sometimes you have be as lucky as you are good."
Even through all that the Illini had still had firm control of the game - up 40-32 with under 90 seconds to go in the half before the Terps scored 8 points in the final minute to cut the Illini lead to 42-40 at half. They carried that momentum well into the second half as Illinois missed their first 12 shots and Maryland extended to a 53-44 lead. From up 14 to down 9. A 38-15 run.
Illinois scratched back to within one point at 53-52, and had a chance to recapture the lead, but a crucial careless turnover from Giorgi Bezhanishvili - the second such turnover from him in two games - gave the ball back to the Terps. They drained a three pointer on the ensuing possession, and were able to maintain a two possession lead for basically the remainder of the game.
So while this loss may not end up meaning much in the grand scheme, it certainly feels like a massive opportunity wasted. After all of the buildup leading into the game and then after the great start - there was a genuine "WE ARE BACK" vibe in the air. I SO wanted to bask in that glow again tonight. Instead I watched a fully deflated crowd file glumly out into the snow, and all of a sudden there is a tiny sliver of doubt annoyingly working its way into my oh so fragile Illini psyche. It's always disappointing to lose - especially at home, but it's especially frustrating when you walk away from that game feeling like we didn't play up to the moment. It was most certainly a buzzkill.
The Illini have now lost consecutive games for the first time since early December, and the upcoming schedule offers no mercy. Michigan State comes to town in four days and then a rugged road trip through Rutgers and Penn State. This Illini team showed great toughness in building an 8-2 conference record through the first half of the conference season, now we'll see how they handle adversity.
+The "autobench" was a huge factor for the second straight game. Ayo Dosunmu sat for 8 first half minutes after picking up his second foul at Iowa on Sunday, while tonight Trent Frazier went to the bench with two fouls at the 12 minute mark of the first half. Neither player committed a second half foul until the final minute of each respective game. So by benching them in the first half - the net effect is the same as them actually fouling out. If you are consistently benching players with two fouls in the first half and yet none of those players are coming close to actually fouling out - then I might suggest your risk aversion sense is a bit too strong. Underwood admitted after the game when asked about the strategy that "it might be something we think a little differently now." One can hope.
+Maryland's length was a big problem for Illinois tonight - contributing to a litany of missed layups - especially in the second half. In fact the Illini actually shot a fraction better from the three point line (36.4%) than they did on two point attempts (35.9%). This is becoming a concerning trend here at the SFC where Illinois is shooting just 39% in conference games - compared to 42% on the road. Neither number exactly jumps off the page, but it's worth noting that it appears this team will be prone to shooting slumps whether on the road or at home.
+Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be happy that the season series against Maryland is over (barring a matchup in the postseason). In the two games against the Terps he scored just 9 total points on 4/13 shooting and committed 6 turnovers.
+Alan Griffin was doing Alan Griffin things again tonight with 9 points and 9 rebounds. Can't help but think he might have been useful in those first 8 minutes of the second half.