Illinois kicked off the Big Ten Tournament with a bang, in a thrilling victory over the Indiana Hoosiers, 64-54. Both teams sporadically went on runs throughout the game, but in the end, Illinois was too strong. The Illini move on to face Michigan, whereas Indiana is left with the NIT in their grasp.
Those who gripe about the Big Ten's offensive deficiencies probably weren't thrilled with the beginning of this game. This game began slowly and sloppily, as Illinois ran out to a 9-0 lead. A lot of those points came in the paint, which became a theme for the Illini throughout the first half. Illinois held a 14-2 advantage in terms of points in the paint, and looked more organized offensively through the first half.
The beginning of the game was played at a frenetic pace, and Indiana couldn't settle their offense down. They would simply run down the court, swing the ball a few times, then jack up a low-percentage jumper or a contested layup. Then, WIll Sheehey began to bring the Hoosiers back. He gave Indiana their first points of the game at the 14 minute mark, then led the comeback, both offensively and defensively.
Offensively, his three-point jumper began to fall. He made two in a row at one point, and then once the Illinois defense began to focus on him, he dished it off to Yogi Ferrell for another 3. That bucket by Ferrell gave the Hoosiers their first lead of the day, and forced an Illini timeout. Defensively, he helped pick up the defensive intensity, and forced the Illini into tougher looks. Throughout the first half, the Hoosiers played multiple defensive looks, transitioning from zone to man-to-man in single possessions. It seemed to be pretty effective throughout the first half, as it confused the Illini and forced them into uncomfortable shots.
The first half kept going back-and-forth as the clock ticked down, as both teams got to the foul line with more frequency. The Illini took a 30-28 lead into halftime, and were led by Malcolm Hill's 8 points (2-2 from behind the line) and Tracy Abrams 8 points and 2 steals. Unsurprisingly, Indiana's offense came from Sheehey (11 points) and Ferrell (10 points). While the Hoosiers' new-fangled uniforms seemed to harm them in the beginning, the Hoosiers came back with a vengeance to make an ugly game looks entertaining.
Both teams struggled offensively again at the start of the second half. Indiana broke out to an early lead, but never brought it to more than 4. Illinois didn't get on the scoreboard in the second half until the 15 minute mark, with a Jon Ekey threekey (sorry). That bucket by Ekey was the first points from a bench player from either team, proving that neither of these teams excel with offensive depth. But we already knew that.
Indiana's achilles heel throughout the whole year has been turnovers. And it's a damn shame that turnovers haunted them in their first BTT game. With 12 minutes left in the game, the Hoosiers had 14 turnovers. That's soooooo many. And it's not like Illinois plays a super-aggressive defense that forces turnovers. The Illini have a steal percentage of 9.7, good for 110th in the country. That's all on Indiana, and it's a bummer that their turnovers are still haunting them today.
Midway through the second half, Illinois went on an 11-2 run, led by Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn, and Ekey. Ekey made some very smart plays, both taking high-percentage shots and stepping it up on defense. At this point, it looked like this game could slip away from the Hoosiers, since the Illini's offense was running smoothly. But a Vonleh block, Sheehey rebound, and a Sheehey bucket kept the Hoosiers alive and brought Indiana within 3.
The teams kept going back and forth as the clock ticked down under 6 minutes. But an Austin Etherington bucket on the low block brought the Hoosiers with in 1, making the score 53-52 with 3 minutes remaining. Later, Tracy Abrams hesitated, shook off the defense, and buried a huge three to give the Illini a 56-52 lead. Soon after, Abrams made two free throws, and in the ensuing Indiana possession, Will Sheehey drove the baseline and chucked a pass directly out of bounds. That sloppy turnover sums up Indiana's struggles this season.
Tracy Abrams had the best game of his season, with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals. He, along with Nnana Egwu's 5 blocks and 7 boards, led the charge for Illinois. Yogi Ferrell finished with 14 points, but had a rough 3-13 shooting performance.
As Illinois moves forward to the Wolverines, the Hoosiers' nightmare of a season is over. Is Tom Crean on the hot seat? How will Yogi Ferrell improve next season? Was it the uniforms' fault? (probably).
Those questions are all for another day.