A fresh start awaits Illini men

A fresh start awaits Illini men

CHAMPAIGN — Sunday's loss at Penn State wasn't the first time a halftime lead slipped away from Illinois. It's become a persistent theme all season — from the Illini's time in Maui right before Thanksgiving to a handful of Big Ten games.

The second half of that regular-season finale, though, was striking. The defense that bottled up Penn State in the first 20 minutes continued to give up too many open three-pointers to Josh Reaves and let Lamar Stevens dictate more of the Nittany Lions' offense. Offensively, the Illini made just one field goal during the final 10 minutes, and that one make came amid a sea of 12 misses.

It's an issue. One Illinois (11-20) would do well to avoid in its 8 p.m. Wednesday rubber game against Northwestern (13-18) in the first round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center in Chicago.

"When we were winning and in our winning streak, it was not so much a problem, but we're constantly addressing that," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Monday before the Illini departed later Monday afternoon for the Big Ten tournament. "I think it's just youth and some inexperience. It's not like it's new."

Illinois has squandered nine halftime leads this season, although most of them haven't been substantial, falling between one and five points. The finals of some of those games, though, have gotten away from the Illini. Like their 16-point loss to Iowa State in Maui, a 10-point loss to Ohio State in their other trip to Chicago this season, an 11-point loss at Minnesota, the 17-point defeat at Purdue and Sunday's 16-point setback to the Nittany Lions.

"We've tried just about everything at halftime," Underwood said. That included shortening the time the coaching staff talked with the team. "Maybe I need to bring the disco ball in and amp up the music."

Underwood said some of Illinois' second-half struggles have been its opponents. Purdue did claim a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, and Underwood maintains Penn State has top-three talent in the conference despite its sub-.500 record. The Illini's own inconsistency hasn't helped.

"We've showed signs in games where we've been really, really good," Underwood said. "We've got to find that balance. (Sunday) at Penn State we were up one at half and playing great. It got away from us in the second half. It's just been a little bit of inconsistency. It's youth — young guys adapting to a very, very long season. We've been led by two freshmen (Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili) and they've been great, but now we're all 0-0 and it's a new lease on life."

That "new lease on life" for Illinois comes after the Illini dropped five of their final six regular-season games. That came after, of course, Illinois won five of the six games prior to its slide.

Symmetry.

"You're going to have ebbs and flows and ups and downs," Underwood said.

Northwestern enters Wednesday's first round of the Big Ten tournament having experienced more ebbs and downs than flows and ups. The Wildcats' loss at Illinois on March 3 was their 10th straight, and they finished the regular season losing 11 of their final 12 games.

"All these teams, all these players, invest so much into this," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "You want to see your players rewarded with a taste of winning. We were fighting, we were battling (and) we were competing. We just couldn't get over the hump."

The lone positive of that stretch for Northwestern was its 18-point home win against Ohio State on March 6 that snapped a winless streak that lasted more than a month. Senior big man Dererk Pardon dominated with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

"No matter what, you've got to taste winning," Collins said. "Everybody smiles a little bigger, and there's an extra bounce in your step. Hopefully, that'll give us a little more momentum heading into Wednesday night."

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