In Like A Lion
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I think we all feared it, right? "Yeah, OK, we righted the ship at Penn State and stopped the losing streak, but these trap games at Northwestern and home for Indiana might just come up and bite us". Every Illini fan has this hair-trigger "but it takes two bad losses to go into a tailspin..." defense mechanism.
Tyler and I agree about the Northwestern game being The Big Exhale. Even if we lose the final four games - the final three regular season games plus the first round BTT game - we'd still be in. Maybe an 11 seed and flirting with a play-in game, but in. Time to finally exhale.
With the exhale out of the way, the.. fear was still there? I'll call it fan fear. I drove here today in this "man, we still have a shot at the Big Ten title and if we somehow blow that at home against Indiana....". So many scars from the past decade that I just can't find my fan confidence anymore. "But what if..." rules the day. "Oh man would it suck if...."
But now I'm sitting here with a team that's 12-6 in the Big Ten despite being the worst shooting team in the Big Ten (just checked - still 14th). That's just so hard to take in. I put tweeted this in January of this year during the blowout loss at Michigan State:
Since this is hard to watch, some research I just did. In games against high-major opponents, Illini from 3:
Michigan St 1-19 (currently with 10:30 remaining)
Total: 18-91 from three, 19.7%.
-- Robert (@ALionEye) January 3, 2020
Since then? 11-4. While continuing to be the worst shooting team in the conference. No, season not over. Turns out there's other ways to win basketball games.
I think that's why this one means so much. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw three tweets during the game that were basically "uh, we win games based on rebounding advantage and we're getting killed on the boards right now". The final rebounding tally: Indiana 39, Illinois 31. Tell me that and I'd predict a 9-point loss. How did we win? Six Kofi blocks, some very important Giorgi rebounds, and a little help from our friends in the striped uniforms. Kofi made 3-4 layups in the second half and when he missed, he went to the line three times. If I'm an IU fan, for two of those three calls, I'm going insane in my trailer. Kofi hit 6 of 6 free throws on those three calls, and there's your Illini win.
Yes, there were other big plays. Ayo's three was massive. Feliz diving for the ball (and Trent calling the timeout) was the play of the game. And I should note, IU fans' anger stops here: their freshman star had two free throws to tie it with 13 seconds left and he missed them both. You can get mad at the calls (and there's some justification to that anger), but when you have to free throws to tie and you biff both, the anger stops. Even if he makes the second one, they'd have immediately fouled and had a chance to tie even if we made both free throws (and they did make a meaningless three at the buzzer). So both free throw misses were just massive.
Perhaps it's winning a game like that which has me so encouraged right now? We didn't do the thing we do to win the games (out-rebound the opponent, take care of the ball, and win with shot volume). We did the opposite. We were out-rebounded, out-shot volumed, outscored from the field. But we did out-hustle. In the final eight minutes, it felt like we got every 50/50 ball. Underwood went with a lineup I can best describe as "the five guys who will dive after everything" (Ayo, Trent, Dre, Giorgi, and Kofi) and it worked. Kofi would block, Giorgi would sky for the rebound (or tip it to a guard), and every single ball was treated as if it was the final possession.
I feared in like a lamb? We dove into March like a Lion. I can't want for the next few weeks.
+ What a game to have recruits in the house. It was loud, the team was fired up, and the atmosphere was close (not there, but close) to the previous decade. There was a lot of attention on the stripe-out in the stands, but the biggest thing to me was that every seat was seemingly filled. I'd be willing to bet that the gate today (not just the tickets sold, but the tickets punched) was the highest in several years.
So many times we've had chances to impress recruits and then lay an egg. Kofi famously visited when we lost to Florida Atlantic. But today, the perfect atmosphere for recruits to be in this building. Not 10 out of 10 like, say, Wake Forest 2004, but a solid 9 out of 10.
Looks like we're building it, so hopefully they will come.
+ As mentioned before, Missouri is my Indiana, so I don't have the hate in my heart that you do. But I can appreciate a good win over a neighbor. The little pocket of IU fans down here in the corner was quite noisy, so to pull out the win (on a hustle play like the ones they dream about at night) was quite satisfying.
At Christmas, if you would have told me that Illinois would be 12-6 after this one and Indiana would be 8-10, I wouldn't have believed you. Their collection of athletes is quite impressive. Honestly, if they do claw their way into the Tournament, I feel like they could be one of those "make the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed" teams (like, say, Ohio State last year who finally put it together in March).
For now, though, I'll very much enjoy looking down on them tomorrow from our ranked position in the polls.
+ I kind of wish Feliz would have gotten the last two free throws to ice the game instead of Ayo. I mean, I want Ayo on the line there (ice in veins and whatnot), but I wanted Feliz to lead us in points, rebounds, and assists. Ayo passed him in points with those two final free throws.
Still, what a game from the senior. 15 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists. And one swipe and a dive for the loose ball to win the game.
+ Just got a text from Tyler (who couldn't watch on vacation and is devouring the box score) saying "it seems like we got their best game and still won" and I think that's a great blind take. An offensively-challenged Indiana team (12th in the conference in offensive efficiency) plays a great offensive game... and we found a way to pull it out. Did just enough here and there - hit just enough shots, grabbed late rebounds after they had taken a double-digit rebounding lead, blocked enough shots, got to the line, and then Feliz made the one single play that won the game.
Taking the other team's best punch and still coming out on top? Yep, entering March like a lion.