Illinois played its first game back at the renovated State Farm Center in front of a rowdy home crowd for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Illinois faced Notre Dame in Champaign, as both teams outplayed one another in separate halves. The first half belonged to Illinois. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish turned the ball over 6 times compared to Illinois’ 1. Kendrick Nunn, Khalid Lewis, and Malcolm Hill all had 7 points as the Illini hit half of their field goals and 41.7% of their three pointers. The Illini led the Irish 41-33.
The second half was all Notre Dame. Illinois got the first bucket on a Maverick Morgan hook shot, but the Irish proceeded to go on a 12-1 run to re-take the lead. Notre Dame would go on to take a 12 point lead before the Illini made one final push. Illinois cut the deficit down to 7 until Steve Vasturia’s dagger three-pointer buried the Illini with 1:54 remaining. Notre Dame went on to win 84-79 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Here’s what we learned.
What We Learned
1. Illinois Shuts Down in The Second Half
The Fighting Illini have run into a lot of trouble in the second half of basketball games recently. After opening the season with tough first halves, Illinois is now finding trouble closing games in the second half. Illinois fought hard against Iowa State in the Emerald Coast Classic, but after 30 minutes, the Illini had nothing left in the tank. Against Notre Dame, the team was missing point blank shots and could not buy a bucket for a significant portion of the latter half of the game. The Illini did not have a single field goal during a 5 minute span at the start of the second half. The Illini won’t win ball games if they don’t hit shots.
Malcolm Hill didn’t make a second half field goal until there were 30 seconds remaining in the game. Hill had 10 points in the final 30 seconds, but it was too little too late. John Groce cited lack of defensive intensity as the main reason Illinois lost the second half. According to Groce, the Illini tied a State Farm Center record with only 3 turnovers in the entire game. Despite protecting the ball, Illinois was passive on defense, allowing Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia to combine for 27 second half points.
2. The Illini Struggled Without Mike Thorne Jr.
Fighting Illini center Mike Thorne Jr. went down with a season-ending meniscus tear in Illinois’ last game. Without the big man in the post, Illinois struggled, especially on defense. Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste dominated in the post, recording a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds. At times unstoppable, Auguste was too big and too quick for Michael Finke or Maverick Morgan to handle. The two combined for only 2 rebounds.
Thorne’s presence is also missed on the offensive end of the floor as Illinois could not buy a bucket in the paint. Leron Black had a very tough night shooting the basketball as he hit just 1 of his 7 field goal attempts. Black got good looks, but nothing would go down for the sophomore. John Groce noted that there was nothing wrong with Black’s shot selection and that he usually makes those shots; he just had a tough night shooting the basketball.
3. Perimeter Defense Continues to be an Issue
Mike Brey noted that he was very proud of his team’s resilience in the second half of this basketball game, and rightfully so. The Fighting Irish ended up connecting on 10 of its 20 three point field goal attempts as it shot Illinois right out of its own arena in the second half. The Irish got good variety from behind the arc as Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem all had 3 three pointers. The Illini continued getting lit up from behind the arc as they struggled finding their defensive identity.
John Groce said that he wants his players to be more ferocious on the defensive end of the floor. It’s a matter of attitude on that side of the ball for Groce’s players. Three point defense continues to be a major issue. The Illini allowed North Florida to hit 17 three pointers in its opening loss. Since then, Illinois hasn’t improved much. The Illini have now allowed 10 or more three pointers in 5 of its 8 games this season. Part of the issue is getting caught of screens and staying with the opponent, but the other part is lack of intensity. The Illini look passive when defending, and if the shots aren’t falling on offense, Illinois isn’t motivated to play good defense.
Illinois falls to 3-5 and fails to get a win on its own court. The Illini approach an easier portion of their non-conference schedule, but serious changes will need to be made for John Groce’s squad before Big Ten play. Illinois faces off against Western Carolina at the State Farm Center this Saturday.