Fouls, mistakes once again sting improving Illini in loss to Ohio State

Fouls, mistakes once again sting improving Illini in loss to Ohio State

CHICAGO — Focus on the end of the first half of Wednesday night’s game in Chicago. 

The Ohio State turnovers. 

The easy Illinois buckets at the other end.

That — that — is what Illini coach Brad Underwood sees as the potential for his team. Just more sustainable. 

The good feelings the first half engendered dissipated during the final 20 minutes at the United Center.

A rash of Illinois fouls. 

More missed layups. 

Collectively, it meant a 77-67 Ohio State victory as Underwood ended up sans jacket as he pulled it off in anger as the fouls and execution missteps mounted.

Illinois (2-7, 0-2 Big Ten) went from as good as Underwood has seen his team play to another winnable game — and what would have been a signature victory against the No. 19 Buckeyes — that ultimately wasn’t.

“It’s the way I envision us,” Underwood said, at least of the first half. “We were flying around. We took them out of what they want to do. Then the ball moved and we got some easy baskets. I thought that was a really, really good stretch and we played the first half without fouling for the most part.”

Then Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson returned to start the second half after sitting with two fouls during Illinois’ first-half run. Underwood called the Buckeyes’ big man “impactful.” The Illini’s own passive play guarding the ball and on the perimeter, coupled with the start of their own foul trouble, decided the game then and there, Underwood said, by the first media timeout of the half.

“It’s something we’re talking about — something we’re addressing — and we’re looking for that consistency and sustainability and any other adjective you’d like to use,” Underwood said.

Basically a full 40 minutes of executing like the Illini did for stretches against the Buckeyes.

“Forty minutes of basketball,” said Illinois redshirt junior forward Kipper Nichols, who tied sophomore guard Trent Frazier (and Ohio State’s Keyshawn Woods) for a game-high 18 points.

“Focusing in on the details for the duration of the game,” Nichols continued. “At certain points in the game our effort was outstanding. If we do that for 40 minutes and sustain that energy and effort, I think we can give ourselves a chance to win a lot of ballgames and we can play with anybody in the country.”

The good stretches against Ohio State will stick with the Illini. Nichols said they’ll learn from them just as much as they’ll learn from their missteps while they’ve lost seven of their first nine games during Underwood’s second season in charge.

“From these losses we’ve definitely learned a lot about ourselves,” Nichols said. “We don’t just hang our heads. We go in and look at what we did right and what we did wrong and what we can build and improve upon. We use those as an example for what we need to do for that 40 minutes of basketball, which will win us a lot of ballgames.”

Lack of poise doomed Illinois in its Big Ten opener at Nebraska. The Illini served some of that up to Ohio State in the first half. Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann said his team lacked it and he lacked it, referring to his first-half technical.

“They are just relentless in their attack on both ends,” Holtmann said about the Illini. “We saw that on film. That’s just the way Brad’s teams are. They just keep coming.

“Then they’re really good at forcing turnovers. I want to give Illinois credit. That’s the reason. I don’t want to say it was just on our guys. They did speed us up. We did make some poor decisions. Fortunately, we just kind of weathered it.”

Ohio State weathering Illinois and its late-game run meant an 0-2 start to Big Ten play, which will resume for Illinois on Jan. 3 at Indiana. Another loss, though, still didn’t knock the Illini’s confidence.

“We’re taking on this guy’s DNA right here,” Nichols said, nodding to Underwood sitting next to him. “That means we’re nothing but a bunch of fighters to the end. We have full belief in guy 1-16 and also in the coaching staff. We’re fully confident and have the utmost belief in ourself.”