CHAMPAIGN — Since defeating UNLV on Nov. 26 — closing on a 10-2 run — Illinois has had trouble finishing games.
The Illini blew the 12-point lead they had with six minutes to go in a loss at Georgia Tech. Although the outcome of the following game against Auburn in Atlanta was never in doubt, the Tigers trimmed a 32-point Illinois lead to 19 by the time the buzzer sounded.
The trend continued Tuesday, when Dartmouth came to within five points in the final minute after the Illini had built a 17-point cushion.
“We’ve got to finish a little bit better,” Illinois coach John Groce said in advance of Saturday’s game against No. 15 Oregon at Portland. “A lot of that starts at the defensive end; we’ve got to get more stops.”
Illinois (9-1) on Thursday ranked ninth in the country in points allowed (59.4 per game), 20th in field goal defense (37.8 percent) and 18th in overall defensive efficiency. But the Ducks (8-0) are offensive beasts, ranking fifth in points per game (91.4) and field goal percentage (52.9) while sitting fourth overall in offensive efficiency.
The mentality with which Illinois approaches the latter part of the game will go a long way in alleviating some of the late-game struggles that have been an issue in recent outings.
“We’ve got to have a disposition about us and really, really locking down in the last eight minutes of the game. We talked a lot about that (Thursday) with our older guys, and I know they’ll embrace that challenge,” Groce said. “Trying to close a ballgame with four to eight minutes to go comes down to imposing your will. A lot of times games are hanging in the balance, and it’s the teams that have that disposition at the highest level that ends up winning the game.”
Illini basketball players are preparing for tests on and off the court. A look at the UI’s next three games (all on neutral courts):
DATE OPPONENT COMMENT
Saturday Oregon Illini haven’t lost in four previous meetings vs. Ducks
Dec. 21 Missouri Last UI victory against Tigers in St. Louis was in 2008
Dec. 28 Illinois-Chicago Flames surprised Illini 57-54 in 2010 at United Center