CHAMPAIGN — Nobody said it had to be pretty.
Or as Brad Underwood expressed it: “An ugly win is better than a pretty loss.”
Underwood’s hard-pressed Illini emerged with bruises, contusions and a wide smile in taking a 54-51 basketball scrum from equally physical Rutgers at State Farm Center on Saturday.
Give thanks to a 17-rebound effort by Kofi Cockburn, four second-half baskets by senior sub Andres Feliz when no one else could score and the last eight points from Ayo Dosunmu on six clutch free throws and a Rutgers goal tend.
Dosunmu is once again drawing NBA interest with 18 or more points in five of his last six games.
Thus did Illinois, now 4-2 in league play, find itself trailing only Michigan State in the Big Ten standings after advancing an incredible home record that shows just five losses in 35 conference games going into Sunday.
It pays to play at home
Ah, the home court! What other explanation could you give for the way Indiana slapped around No. 11 Ohio State (66-54) on Saturday? Imagine, just five road losses in 34 showdowns involving mostly comparable, defense-oriented teams.
But this Illini triumph was scary. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, pushed out from his preferred post location by the presence of Cockburn, seemed to force everything through a first-half stalemate ... just 11 months after he racked 35 points against these same Scarlet Knights. Nor could his teammates pick him up as the Illini converted 6 of 31 first-half shots (two assists and 0 of 9 from the arc). They had no field goals in the last 7:46 of the half.
And when Ron Harper Jr. shot Rutgers ahead 28-22 after the break, Illinois was at that juncture shooting 15.9 percent (7 of 44) from the field, and seemed ready to break the school’s 55-year arena low of 23.4 percent.
Feliz comes up big
That’s when the overlooked Feliz came to the rescue, erupting from a slump that had seen him go scoreless against Missouri and produce just 30 points in the previous six games. All four of his field goals came on drives, thereby opening up the tight Rutgers defense, and Illinois closed on a 11-for-19 spree to nearly, but not quite, reach 30 percent (28.6) for the game. Aided by the fact Rutgers shot a mere 33.9, it was the first time a Big Ten team has won a conference game this season while shooting under 30 percent.
How will the NCAA committee see it? Well, the current three-game spurt will offset the Miami and Missouri disasters, and offer momentum for what must be a plus-.500 conference season.
To ask for more — for instance, title contention — is to overlook how poorly Illinois has shot the basketball for long stretches in this season ... not just misses but forced attempts and inexplicable air-ball misfires. In cashing two treys out of 14 tries, the Illini fall back to 30 percent (304 of 350 teams are above that figure). Marquette, as an example, is one of six teams topping 40 percent.
When you’ve shot 300 three-pointers, as has Illinois, and they comprise 31 percent of your field-goal attempts, it is unlikely success will continue long-term without improvement there.
The only way to put points on the scoreboard is to make baskets. Close doesn’t count.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com