I should probably take a solid two hours, calm down, maybe do some Yoga or some breathing exercises or go get a massage … because I’m worried this will be an expletive-laden tirade about how angry and upset I am over this loss.
It’s not that the Hoosiers played bad. They didn’t. It’s not that this was a game they should have won that they let slip away. It wasn’t. It’s that after Bill Cole hit that three to tie up the game, Devan Dumes traveled on IU’s next possession and Mike Tisdale hit two free throws on Illinois’ next trip down the court to put them up two with 3:19 to go — I felt like that was it. The whole second half I kept waiting for the Illini to go on a run, grab a couple-point lead with just a few minutes to play, and for it to be pretty much over. This is how I saw the game going in my mind after tying it up at half : IU playing well enough for 35 minutes or so, but eventually succumbing to the Illini and their screechy coach.
I was OK with this outcome; the other Assembly Hall is an incredibly difficult environment to play in, and for these young Hoosiers to bring it for that long and stay that close — no matter how average this Illinois team has looked at times this season — it was commendable. It was not ideal, but acceptable. It was good enough for me in this season where IU is starting to gain their footing again in the Big Ten conference.
But the Hoosiers had to tease me. Had to make me think, if only for a fleeting instance, that they had taken another step in their maturation process: not just a win on the road against a team that had yet to win a game in conference this season in Penn State, but against a team that holds serve on their home court like few others in the conference.
Verdell Jones hit two free throws to tie it. Tisdale hit a jumper to put the Illini back up by two. Dumes air-balled a three, but the Illini turned the ball back over. Then IU turned it right back over on an inbounds play. Tisdale hit another free throw with a minute to play — on a questionable foul call on Jeremiah Rivers as both went after a rebound — to put the Ilini up three. Jones hit two free throws to put the Hoosiers down one after getting fouled by Jeff Jordan coming off a pick. The Illini, up two with 46 seconds left, had to hold the ball, hit a shot late in the shot clock, and you come pretty close to putting it away. But Rivers came up with a huge steal off Demetri McCamey and was subsequently fouled by D.J. Richardson.
Tell me you weren’t on the edge of your seat. Here was Rivers, a kid shooting only 51 percent from the free-throw line heading into this pressure-packed situation, a kid that missed four free throws in the final three minutes against Loyola (Md), a game IU eventually lost by five. This was dramatic theater.
And he hit them both. With ease. Tie ballgame. From there, we know what happened. The best player on the court — a guy that was hitting big shots and dishing with precision all game — hit the game-winner as the clock expired. Crushing. Heart-breaking. Depressing.
But you know what? This was the most exciting and nerve-racking three minutes of Hoosier basketball in the Tom Crean era. I don’t think there’s any debate on that. I would take this sort of loss over a 20-point blowout, something that could have easily happened when IU found themselves down 13 in the first half. I will take that over never being in the game, a situation last year’s Hoosiers certainly would have found themselves in.
IU has had its slip-ups and letdowns prior to the step forward this afternoon. It’s possible they’ll take another step back at some point, and perhaps come out flat and lose a game they should have won. But on afternoon’s like this, afternoon’s where IU goes on the road and has you riveted with every possession, every bounce of the ball, means this team is relevant again for fans. Miss a game, and you’re not missing some awful effort where a manager suits up and comes in to play, where a baseball player is getting playing time, where you’re looking for what else is on TV with 10 minutes to go; you’re missing a terrific, emotional Big Ten battle. Last year it was hard to care or get too emotionally invested when the Hoosiers were getting rocked game after game after game. Today, that’s all I found myself doing.
It was perhaps Steve Lavin who put it best (I’m paraphrasing here): “You’re getting a good look at the future of this Hoosier program right now with how they’re playing.”
That we were this afternoon. And I look forward to living and dying with this team in the years to come. For as much as today hurt, it’s better than feeling nothing at all.
One other thought:
Dumes had a bit of bad Devan tonight — an air-balled three to go along with his travel late in the game — but his play just before halftime was something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before: a steal that led to a half-court heave that went in as time expired to tie up the game going into the locker room. Real cool.
And that’s how IU was able to stay close in this game: doing all the little things good teams are supposed to do. It was not only Rivers hitting those two important free throws; it was the team hitting 19-of-23 — including 13-of-14 in the second half — good for 82.6 percent. It was when they couldn’t get anything going down low, hitting six threes in the first half to keep it close, and finishing the game with nine makes overall from 3-point land, their highest total of the season. It was, with the shot clock at one second and IU getting a chance at an inbounds play, Verdell finding Tom Pritchard on a lob, Pritchard getting fouled in the act of shooting and hitting one of the free throws.
It was IU turning the ball over 13 times, not great, but below their season average.
OK, lest I run on forever, that’s about it. Your turn now.
Video via SB Nation.
Filed to: Illinois Fighting Illini