Big Plays At End Spell Doom For Illini

Inconsistent shooting and mistakes at the end doomed an otherwise strong effort as the Fighting Illini basketball team fell to Wisconsin 67-63 at the Assembly Hall Sunday. There were a number of lead changes as both teams battled throughout, but UW hit shots late when needed most. The Illini now must regroup to remain a contender in the Big 10.

The loss at home to Wisconsin was a difficult blow for a young Illinois team that needs frequent confident boosts. Illini coach Bruce Weber praised his foe for making the big plays at the end.

"You've got to give credit to Wisconsin. I thought after you lose three in a row like that, Bo was able to get them to regroup."

The game went back and forth throughout. It appeared the Illini might take charge at the 9 minute mark of the second half, but they couldn't sustain their effort.

"I thought when it got up 50-46, now you've got to find a way at home to make a couple plays, maybe put their spirit out. But that's when they outhustled us and out-toughed us for loose balls, rebounds, second chance points. And then they made shots. Obviously, when they hit threes they're pretty effective because they rely on it so much.

Meyers Leonard, who enjoyed a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds but struggled defending Badger center Jared Berggren, felt some game-changing plays late proved decisive.

"At the very end, they got a few Matto points, they got an offensive rebound by diving on the floor. They had two threes that were pretty big, and they went on a 7-0 run. That was the turning point in the second half. It was one we let slip away, that's for sure."

Joe Bertrand seconded Leonard with 15 points and had the best assist day of his career with five. He experienced first hand what Wisconsin can do to you to protect leads late in a game.

"They got a couple offensive rebounds that killed us. They'd already run the clock down to about 5 seconds, and we had to play defense that whole time. When they get that rebound, we've got to play defense for another thirty seconds. That was one thing that really killed us."

A two-pronged attack of Jordan Taylor and Berggren spoiled Illinois efforts, with Berggren the main man first half and Taylor strong at crunch time. Taylor ended with 19 points and Berggren 18, the only two Badgers in double figures. Berggren hit 3 of 6 from the arc. Taylor added nine big rebounds.

D.J. Richardson added 13 points and Brandon Paul 10, but neither was hot from the field. Paul was especially ineffective, hitting only 3 of 11 shots. He had five rebounds and no assists in 33 minutes.

Tracy Abrams had a good game at the point, scoring 9 points and playing a solid floor game. Weber appreciated the effort from his freshman.

"Tracy played well. No turnovers, two assists, he goes four for six. He did a lot of good things; obviously not enough to help us win. He even called out a couple sets on his own, which was great. He played with a little more confidence, and that's what you hope for all the guys."

The Illini could have taken a decent lead into halftime with better shooting. But 34.5% allowed the Badgers to stay in the game. Weber saw it as a tale of two halves.

"In the first half, I thought we were pretty good on defense but struggled a little bit on offense. In the second half, we got it going a little bit offensively but couldn't make the stops and get the loose balls when it counts.

"They make you play basketball. They get you spread out, and you've got to guard. You've got to guard one-on-one sometimes. We gave them too many easy looks. That's why they shoot 53% in the second half.

"Over the years, you find things that work against Wisconsin, and you try to implement those and execute those. I thought at times we did, but sometimes we didn't. We've got to have better execution. We're still learning and figuring it out."

Worst of all, Wisconsin was the aggressor. No visiting team should have the advantage on the play-hard chart.

"We lost the MATTO. That is disappointing. At home, you can't do that. We shouldn't have allowed it to happen. They make shots, they out execute you, they make plays.

"And then we've got to get some offensive rebounds. You've got to get some second chance points. We've got to fight to earn every basket. That makes it really tough on your offense."

Weber got no points again from his bench. He admitted he will use a deeper bench if things don't turn around fast.

"Nnanna (Egwu) has got to play more. He's got a great attitude and plays hard. He's much more active and productive on the defensive end. I thought it was a difficult game for Myke Henry guarding; they get so much movement . Maybe in the second half in hind sight. You can always second guess; it's an easy thing to do afterward.

"We didn't have the energy to get the loose ball or get the rebound to make a difference. Nnanna, Ibby (Djimde), Mike Shaw, those guys come every day and play their butts off. If we can't make progress, those guys have got to get some minutes."

Weber reminds the season is far from over. A number of conference opponents have suffered losing streaks only to right the ship eventually. The Illini coach sited Minnesota and its coach Tubby Smith as an example.

"You've got to give Tubby credit. They lost four in a row and came back and beat Indiana at Indiana. So a lot can happen. A lot of crazy things have already happened in the Big Ten. Right now, we've just got to worry about getting better."

The Illini's next game is Saturday at Minnesota. Weber hopes the team will duplicate last year's effort in Minneapolis.

"We went there last year with our backs against the wall. We called it our 'foxhole game.' We came together and did all the things that made a difference. Demetri (McCamey) even dove on the floor that day. We found a way to gut it out and get a victory. We are going to have to have that same effort and mindset to get something done there."

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