Illini are in games, but lately they haven't sealed the deal, except at Penn State.
The starting lineup is headline news in these parts.
But it’s not who starts, it’s how you finish. That’s when it counts.
Illinois was a gritty finisher through the first 11/2 seasons of John Groce’s operation. They won eight straight games decided by two points or less (or overtime) ... EIGHT! They survived four last season and four early this season. They edged Indiana twice here in one calendar year, and they nudged Missouri 65-64.
The problem since Jan. 1 is, quite clearly, a failure to finish. Groce misplaced his magic wand. He carried a 13-2 record to Wisconsin, where they were thumped 95-70. But in the face of all that’s happened since, a look back shows the Illini have remained in contention past the midway point of the second half in eight straight games but didn’t win until Sunday.
And even then, the finish wasn’t a classic. Illinois beat Penn State 60-55 because the Nittany Lions produced a single point in 91/2 minutes.
In each of the last eight games, the contest reached a turning point, and the Illini offense went sour. For seven of them, heroes stepped up for the opposition, and the Illini couldn’t respond. Here’s a look, from columnist Loren Tate:
7:00 remaining at Northwestern: Tied 34-34, Tre Demps hit three bombs, the Illini missed 8 of 12 shots, and the Wildcats won 49-43.
6:00 vs. Purdue: Illinois led 52-51, Ron Johnson and Kendall Stephens hit quick threes and Purdue rolled 66-58.
6:00 vs. Michigan State: Spartans led 59-53, rattled off 19 more and breezed 78-62.
5:30 at Ohio State: Tied 46-46, the Buckeyes responded with a trey and a steal, and the Illini made just two more fielders, losing 62-55.
7:10 at Indiana: Illini trailed 42-39, finished 3 of 12, and lost 56-46.
8:15 vs. Iowa: Illini shot ahead 66-61, but Iowa scored on 9 of 11 possessions while Illinois went 1 of 10 (six free throws). Final was 81-74.
7:00 vs. Wisconsin: UI trailed 51-49, and Badgers scored on 11 of last 13 tries including three treys. Wisconsin won 75-63.
9:30 at Penn State: Behind 52-49, the UI finished 3 of 9 on fielders while Penn State didn’t connect until it was too late. Illini won 60-55.
In conclusion: In roughly 264 minutes to reach those turning points above, Illinois trailed by eight points, 396-388, going into the home stretch ... but, excluding Sunday, were outscored 123-62 thereafter.