Closing out games no longer an issue for Illini

Closing out games no longer an issue for Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Michigan State went on a 22-5 second-half run during a nearly nine-minute stretch where Illinois didn't make a single shot. Rutgers shot 50.7 percent from the field — it's best in Big Ten play this season — with freshman Caleb McConnell's career-high 25 points nearly seven times his season average.

The Illini? Well, they won both games last week, with their upset of the then-No. 9 Spartans their second Top 25 victory in 10 days. It was two games, however, they might not have won earlier in the season where second half leads regularly slipped away into losses stacked one after another.

Illinois (9-15, 5-8 Big Ten) will try to follow up its 3-0 homestand and a stretch of four wins in five games with another at 6 p.m. Thursday at Ohio State (16-7, 6-6) — the start of three out of four games on the road. The Illini will do so playing their best basketball and with more momentum than they've had all season.

"It's just natural," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said about his team's improvement the last two-plus weeks. "When you have as many new faces — when you have as many freshmen — there can't help but to be growth. Yet, it's harder to achieve growth than most people think. It speaks to the character of our guys and speaks to the camaraderie in the locker room that's allowed that to happen."

Actually closing out those wins against Michigan State and Rutgers came from lessons learned earlier in the season when Illinois couldn't. The Illini's schedule ranks as one of the most difficult in the country. They had opportunities late against Georgetown, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Northwestern but couldn't capitalize.

"I think the strength of our schedule was very, very challenging, but I think with that came an inner confidence that we're not afraid of anybody," Underwood said. "Yet, there's still a long way to go. We're not close to the end game."

In fact, three straight wins and four out of five isn't nearly enough. Just ask freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu. The feeling around the program might be better because of them — winning can do that — but the Illini want more.

"We're not satisfied," Dosunmu said. "As a leader, that's just what I've been trying to incorporate in the locker room like, 'Don't get satisfied. Let's do more.' We know what we're capable of. We let a lot of games early in the season slip, and the only way we can overcome that is by winning more."

Aaron Jordan said Illinois' improvement has come from its young players naturally developing during the course of the season. All of the Illini trusting in what they were doing, the senior guard added, was just as important.

"Not giving up when things got difficult," Jordan said was key. "Everybody can't do that. Some people fold. As an athlete, everybody knows the hard times, but there's also good times if you stay with it."

Underwood said he's never stopped believing in what this team could accomplish. Still, he knew to temper his expectations early in the season. Eight newcomers, including six freshmen, meant a nearly complete restart this offseason with that latter group bound to experience some real on-court adversity for the first time.

"High school kids deal with nothing," Underwood said. "They may have a coach that gets on them, but they're still the best player and very comfortable in their skin because they know who's around them and what's going on. Until you get somebody who's out of the comfort and has to deal with adversity, you don't know.

"That's where I've been so pleased with Ayo and (freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili). We've been able to coach those guys really, really hard. We've been able to demand more from them, and they handle that in a way that's very mature and very beyond their years."

Adonis De La Rosa might have been new to Illinois this season, but he wasn't new to Division I basketball — or team and individual struggles. The 24-year-old graduate transfer center has the experience to know growth when he sees it.

"Just knowing that dudes are fighting out there and just keep pushing through, that right there shows growth — major growth," De La Rosa said. "I feel like sometimes we used to come out in the second half and would let down a lot. That was toward early in the season. Now dudes are buckling down and ending out games — finishing out games."