Egwu, Illini Shut Down Hoosiers

The Illini turned in another stellar defensive effort against Hoosiers on Thursday.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — There couldn't have been a more appropriate place for Nnanna Egwu to put on another defensive show.

At the Big Ten Tournament, with the conferences coaches, players and media all in one place, Egwu saved his best for now, days after being left off the Big Ten's All Defensive team.

Talk about time and place.

Egwu was the cornerstone as the Illini dropped Indiana 64-54, holding the Hoosiers to 35.3 percent from the field and frustrating them down the stretch.

The All Defensive team, one list voted by the coaches and another by the media, was subjective. What happened Thursday was clear cut. In both cases, Egwu diverted attention from himself.

"It's not just me," he said. "Honestly."

The first half was comprised of good and bad for the Illini. Indiana scored only two points in the paint, as Egwu was joined by either Malcolm Hill or Jon Ekey in doubling down every time the ball went to freshman big man Noah Vonleh.

"I thought it threw him a little bit out of rhythm," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Vonleh is such a good player you've got to try to take the ball out of his hands."

That continued throughout the game, as Vonleh finished with six points on 3-of-9 shooting.

"He's a big part of their game plan," Ekey said. "We just wanted to down there and frustrate him. It seemed to kind of work."

With the inside game stalled out, the Hoosiers opted for the perimeter. Six three-pointers, three from senior Will Sheehey, helped Indiana overcome an early nine-point deficit to enter halftime down by two.

Groce admitted he was worried after the first 20 minutes.

"I was concerned at the half. We had a plan in place," he said. "I felt like boy, if they could get the ball into the paint."

Egwu diagnosed the problem.

"I think we gave them too much space," he said. "We made some mistakes defensively and gave them too much space and allowed them to shoot."

The Hoosiers grabbed a five point lead out of the break, forcing Groce to come up with something different.

With foul trouble mounting and the Hoosiers surging, Groce called for zone.

"We thought it might be a change-up or a curveball maybe a little bit to throw them out of their rhythm, try to prevent maybe us getting some more fouls," Groce said.

The 2-3 zone did more than alleviate foul issues. It stumped the Hoosiers. The 3s quit falling, all 10 second-half tries clanking. Sheehey went from scoring 11 points in the first half to finding only two shots and for two points in the second.

"We got in his space and made him uncomfortable, made him drive the ball and give it to other guys," Egwu said.

From his seat behind press row, former Illinois leader Brandon Paul quickly noticed a difference.

"I saw them mixing it up and it was smart," Paul said. "I think changing the defense on them kept them guessing."

Man-to-man was mixed in, too. Switching on most screens, the Illini imposed their notion that every matchup was in their favor.

Sometimes Egwu found himself guarding speedy Hoosiers playmaker Yogi Ferrell. Often times Tracy Abrams had to scrap to stay in front of bigger players like Stanford Robinson in the post. Despite what seemed to be a disadvantage, the Illini won more of those face-offs than they lost.

"I mean, we've done that the whole year where I switch off on guards," Egwu said. "The main thing is I understand we have help in the gap from the teammates. That's kind of how our defense is. We've got to trust each other."

Egwu finished with five blocks and seven rebounds and carried out his usual list of tasks that don't have stats attached to them. The most telling stat to describe what Egwu provided: he rested for only four minutes all game, clearly too valuable to sit for more than a quick breath.

"I don't know what it is," Ekey said of what makes Egwu so good. "He just does all the little things we need in there from a big guy, whether we're in zone or man. It's always good because you feel like you can pressure your guy more because if you do get beat you have a guy like Nnanna back there helping you out."

Egwu says this is the best the team has played on defense all year. He's the most qualified to give his opinion. With the Illini feeling good about their defensive abilities, top-seed Michigan looms large. The Wolverines have one of the best offenses in the conference and buried the Illini with 84 points and 16 3-pointers in Champaign nine days ago.

It may sound crazy, but Ekey said the Wolverines and all that firepower is exactly what the Illini want to go up against.

So get ready for the rematch, the chance for revenge. A great offensive team versus a great defensive team.

"You can't change a whole lot of who you are this time of year in less than 24 hours," Groce said. "You've got to be who you are. We've got to play better than what we played against them last time. Regardless of who you're playing tomorrow, whether it's Michigan or anybody else you've got to try to be better them on that day and try to figure out how to get your name to the next line of the bracket."


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