His team had just lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and a reporter asked IU Coach Tom Crean what he wanted to tell his players. Crean paused before answering.
“Bottom line is we can play better,” Crean said. “You have to match the toughness and the competitive spirit every time that you play.”
Illinois (19-13) beat IU (17-15) 64-54 Thursday, its third consecutive loss.
“Really what I want to do is try to find a different way to say that message because I’ve given it a few times,” he said.
Despite going 0-for-10 from beyond the arc in the second half and turning the ball over 16 times, the Hoosiers found themselves down only one point late in the game.
Sophomore forward Austin Etherington had just hit a layup off an assist from freshman forward Noah Vonleh to cut the Illini’s lead to 53-52 with 3:13 left.
In the span of 58 seconds, the Hoosiers had gone on a 4-0 run, prompting Illinois Coach John Groce to call a timeout.
Illinois hadn’t made a field goal in more than three minutes. The only thing helping it to maintain its lead were three made free throws from junior guard Rayvonte Rice.
With one less timeout, Rice found himself driving to the rim for an open, yet off-balance layup.
Illinois’ leading scorer’s attempt rolled off the rim and into Vonleh’s hands, his fifth rebound of the game.
On the ensuing IU possession, Vonleh got the ball and without hesitation drove toward the rim with Illinois junior forward Nnanna Egwu on his hip.
With two minutes 32 seconds to play, Vonleh and Egwu rose up at the same time, Egwu getting a piece of Vonleh’s shot.
Jon Ekey grabbed the rebound, and the score remained 53-52 in the Fighting Illini’s favor.
On Illinois’ next possession, the Hoosiers matched up man-to-man, but as the shot clock wore down switched to a 2-3 zone.
In the midst of this, junior guard Tracy Abrams dribbled to the left side of the court behind the 3-point line.
Rice stood in the corner. Abrams picked up his dribble.
Rice slashed to the hoop on the baseline. Abrams faked a pass Rice’s way.
With only sophomore guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell there to defend, Ferrell followed Rice as Abrams faked the pass.
With Ferrell now out of his sight, Abrams pulled up for an open 3-point attempt.
Ferrell tried to recover, but his attempted contest of Abrams’ shot was too late.
Abrams hit the shot, his 19th point, with two minutes six seconds left.
“It was a defensive mistake,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “It’s something that we practice. It was just a mistake.”
Abrams made six free throws over the last one minute 19 seconds of the game to put away Illinois’ 64-54 victory against IU in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Those two plays, Egwu’s block of Vonleh and Abrams’ 3-pointer, proved to be the deciding factor.
After the game, Etherington said he would want Vonleh taking that shot in that situation every time.
“I thought it was a great drive, and give him another drive I bet he finishes it,” he said. “Egwu made a great defensive play, and he’s a great defensive player.”
Ferrell made the right decision in taking Rice, Etherington said, because it is better to give up a 3-pointer than a layup.
“In that case the top guy needed to move down and help,” Etherington said.
Abrams finished the game with seven rebounds and 25 points on 8-for-16 shooting.
The early exit drops IU to 17-15 on the season, looking at a National Invitational Tournament berth.
Etherington said despite the loss, the Hoosiers will play with passion and exuberance, wherever their next game might be.
“Hopefully we get the opportunity to keep playing,” he said.
After the game, Crean was asked how he would define IU’s season up to this point. He said he wouldn’t define his teams’ season just yet.
“I wouldn’t, because I hope it’s gonna continue to keep going,” he said.