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The drive got a bit snowy around the Iowa-Nebraska border. The last 45 minutes was one of those "right lane is mostly clear, left lane... I'll just stay in the right lane" deals. But I'm so glad I drove here. I'm glad I got to witness a specific moment at the end of the game.
It's such a strange season. No fans (well, there were 43 Nebraska friends and family here tonight - I counted), and massive arenas like Pinnacle Bank Arena are so weird when there's a game going on. It's like you're on a movie set and you're filming the cameras filming the scene. Actually, that's exactly what it's like. I promise to get back to the moment at the end of the game but first let's wander around for a little bit.
My wife and I knocked out Narcos on Netflix in January. Five seasons - three in Colombia, two (so far) in Mexico. The first two seasons in Colombia are centered around the Medellin Cartel - the third season is the Cali Cartel. There's no spoilers here because it's just tracing back through historical events.
There's a shootout at the end of the second season. I wanted more information on what really happened in that shootout, so I did some searching and found a video someone filmed from across the street while they were filming that shootout. If you click on that link (I'm not embedding just in case people aren't aware of the Pablo Escobar story and want to watch Narcos with zero knowledge of any of the seasons - if that's you don't click), you'll see what I'm referencing here. The person across the street is filming the filming of the scene. There's something happening over there, it's being filmed with tons of cameras, so I'll film them filming it.
That's how these games feel. Something is being produced for television in front of me. I'm in the building, but I'm watching that production from far away. Much like the person filming the Narcos production from across the street, I'm observing a thing that's happening, but I'm fulling aware that it should be seen through those cameras, not from my angle. I'm simply observing how it's made.
Wagner Moura is fantastic as Pablo Escobar, by the way. I'm sure for the person filming the filming from across the street, they might have been a little star struck. There's the star of the program, right there, across the street, doing his thing for the cameras. It had to be so much fun for that person to then go back and watch the actual scene with the season was released.
That's probably the best way I can explain being in the building for these games. It feels like I'm watching something being filmed. I'm observing. The television production is down there and I'm up here.
And when I watch Ayo, I'm star struck. There's the star of the program, right there, on the court, doing his thing for the cameras. It's going to be so much fun to go back and watch him in this game.
OK, to the moment: At the end of overtime, Trent hit two free throws with eight seconds left to ice the game. It put us up by five and put the game (finally) out of reach. Nebraska came down the court to attempt a meaningless shot and Ayo got a steal. He tipped it away, ran over to grab it, jumped out of bounds but threw it into the backcourt before landing out of bounds, and the game was over. And then Ayo - off camera, I'm guessing - had some words for himself. He was far off the court, nowhere near any fans or Nebraska players, yet saying some things to himself. I have no idea what he said - I think only Da'Monte Williams could hear him - but it was a very confident "team: rescued" moment. A very matter-of-fact "need me to win this by myself? DONE." was the vibe. Exclamation point being a late steal in overtime.
In that moment, I feel like I fully appreciated Ayo for the first time. I was in awe. Yes, we needed overtime to beat lowly Nebraska and a win dropped us two spots on KenPom. We have lots to discuss about what might happen to this team in the NCAA Tournament when we play like this. But in that moment, with Ayo talking to himself, I remembered what it's like to watch someone who is truly exceptional at something. I've seen Vladimir Ashkenazy play Rachmaninov and I've seen Wynton Marsalis play his trumpet and every time you witness something like that you wonder how it can be so effortless.
Consider this. When Nebraska got yet another offensive rebound and kicked it out to Mayen who hit a three to take a 64-58 lead with less than three minutes to go, they had an 81.9% chance of winning this game:
And every ounce of that skyrocketing red-to-orange line over the following five minutes, from Nebraska having an 82% chance of winning with 3:00 left to Illinois having an 83% chance of winning two minutes into overtime, was Ayo Dosunmu. Not exaggerating - it was all him. To wit:
- Ayo gets fouled and hits both free throws to make it 64-60.
- Ayo gets to the rim for a layup to make it 64-62 with 1:30 left.
- After a missed three by Nebraska, Ayo gets fouled again and ties it with 0:52 left.
- After Nebraska scores with 36 seconds left to take a two-point lead again, Ayo gets to the rim again and his layup ties it with 0:20 left.
- Then Ayo blocks Nebraska's three point attempt at the buzzer to send it to overtime.
- And in the first minute of overtime he gets to the rim again to give us a 2 point lead, then hits a three the next time down to give us a commanding 5-point lead one minute into overtime.
Kofi's free throw misses kept it interesting, but Illinois pulled away, Trent hit two free throws to ice it, and then Ayo stole the ball and tossed it past halfcourt to run off the final seconds on the clock. His self-talk after the final horn was perhaps the most well-deserved self-talk in the last 10 years of Illini basketball. One guy, pretty much all by himself, turned trailing by six with less than 3:00 remaining into up by five one minute into overtime. 82% chance we lose, meet 83% chance we win.
And I'm up there in the second deck, sitting in the media seats, feeling like I just watched them film the perfect episode. In awe that I got to see the star in person.
+ OK, yes, we need to talk about it. Well, we need to touch on it. I'll break it down in another post, but for now, let's touch on it.
During the second media timeout of the second half, in absolute shock that we were losing to Nebraska - a team that's seriously going to finish something like 4-22 this year - I began to look through the NCAA Team Sheet archive. The sheets that the Committee uses when seeding teams. They're color-coded so it's easy to spot bad losses.
What I was looking for: a top-5 NET/RPI team with a loss to a team as bad as Nebraska. I looked through the last six years, and the only one I could find was Kansas, #5 in the RPI at the time, losing at #138 Oklahoma State in 2016. The RPI was later replaced by the NET, and tonight was #4 nearly losing to #167. I might continue that research this weekend but I'm guessing it's been... 10 years since a top-5 team lost to someone that bad? Maybe 15?
The point: Ayo rescued us from one of the worst losses in recent memory. Not just for Illinois - in college basketball. Teams that reach the rarified air we're currently in (fighting for a 1-seed) do not lose games to teams as bad as Nebraska. And that's simply a factual statement - the closest thing I can find across six seasons is the #5 RPI team losing to #138.
The depressing thing: any other Big Ten opponent tonight and we lose by double digits. And if we played Michigan, we lose by 35. Thanks for the cancelation, Wolverines!
+ I think my biggest concern was how Nebraska was getting in our heads. They were doing all kinds of Lucas Johnson things. Hook your arm here, step over you there, jump in and grab the ball after the whistle just to see how you'll react. And we were not handling it well. Visible frustration. Giorgi even got a technical.
I'm glad it's happening now so we can be fully aware of it. In the Tournament, we're going to face that team, and I want to be ready to laugh in their face and win by 30. We just can't get dragged down into that kind of stuff. Dunk on their heads as a response.
+ It's odd that only five players scored, I think. Grandison scoreless, Da'Monte scoreless, Curbelo scoreless, Giorgi scoreless. Ayo had 31, Kofi had 21, Miller and Fraizer both had 10, and Hawkins had 5. Using math, I have determined that if Kofi and Ayo had not returned to school, we'd have lost 72-15.
I guess in some ways I can see that as a good thing. Grandison was off from the first minute, Giorgi was ineffective, Curbelo only played 13 minutes after 3 turnovers - lots of guys had a really bad game all at the same time and we still won. Then again, if it was any Big Ten opponent besides Nebraska, we lose by a lot.
+ Still, I keep coming back to Ayo's 15-straight streak. Final 10 points of regulation, first 5 points of overtime. Forget for a moment all the things that led to Nebraska 64, Illinois 58 (and yes, those things included Ayo). That stretch was as impressive as anything we've seen the last decade. And I'm saying that about a player who had a triple-double on Saturday. I'm having a hard time remembering a more "put the team on my back" five minutes in the last 15 years than Ayo tonight.
Just consider the last 8:30 of the game (3:30 of regulation, 5:00 of overtime). Ayo was:
6-7 from the floor including 1-1 from three
4-4 from the line including the pressure-packed FT's to tie it
1 huge block to force OT
1 steal and a toss in the air to end the game
Maybe I'll just end with my tweet immediately after the game. Except I'd like to amend one thing. We've all been through a lot - we DO deserve him.
Ayo Dosunmu, ladies and gentlemen.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) February 13, 2021
With most of his team sound asleep, he one-on-five'd us back from a 6 point deficit with 2:40 left, blocked their attempt at a buzzer beater to get us to OT, and then took over in overtime.
We don't deserve him.