Illini Squander Golden Opportunity

At one point in the first half, Illinois led the Boilermakers by 13 points, but the Illini fell apart in the second half and dropped a costly game with NCAA tournament implications in West Lafayette.

Rayvonte Rice played one of his best games of the season Saturday against Purdue in the Illinois regular season finale.

The Illinois senior, who transferred from Drake following his sophomore year, scored 25 points on 9-16 shooting and was on the floor for all but 4 minutes of the contest.

But aside from Rice, it was an extremely disappointing day for the Illini. As a team, Illinois shot just 34 percent from the field, including a brutal 2-17 stretch to start the second half during which Purdue seized control of the game.

Sophomore Kendrick Nunn, who scored 14 points in the first contest against Purdue, managed only 5 points on 2-12 shooting. Senior Ahmad Starks played only 17 minutes in the game, scoring 6 points.

Sophomore wing Malcolm Hill, who has been up and down this season, scored 15 points on 4-10 shooting and went 7-8 from the free throw line.

Despite committing 6 less turnovers than Purdue (20 to 14, respectively), Illinois just couldn't capitalize on numerous opportunities to maintain control of the game. Through nearly the first 9 minutes of the game, the Boilermakers scored just two points. However a run beginning in the final few minutes of the first half and continuing well into the second half completely turned the tides in Purdue's favor, and they held the lead the remainder of the game.

To put it in perspective, Illinois at one time led by 13 points, but by the middle of the 2nd half, the Illini trailed by 13 points. The final score isn't indicative of just how dominant Purdue was (or how much Illinois struggled, depending on your perspective) in the second half.

Purdue was led in scoring by Rapheal Davis with 18, followed closely by A.J. Hammons with 16. However it was the play of P.J. Thompson that had everyone buzzing. Thompson ruined Jaylon Tate's day and sparked the Boilermakers defensively amid their run.


So what does this game mean for Illinois? I'll put it this way, winning would have made their lives a whole lot easier.

A win likely would have meant that the Illini were much more firmly in the NCAA tournament, although would not have guaranteed it. With Michigan State's win over Indiana earlier in the day, an Illinois win would have meant a 7-seed in the Big Ten tournament and a matchup against 10-seed Northwestern, a team which Illinois handled twice already this year.

Instead, Illinois sits at the 8-seed in an 8-9 matchup against an always-dangerous Michigan team. If that was not enough, the winner of that game faces top overall seed and potential NCAA tournament 1-seed Wisconsin, who dominated the Illini earlier in the year. Will one win in the BTT be enough to get the orange and blue into the big dance, especially considering all of the bubbles already bursting across the country?

The NCAA has already stated that the "first four out" will automatically be named 1-seeds in the NIT tournament, but for players like Rayvonte Rice, who have not played in an NCAA tournament game, the NIT is a consolation prize at best. Even if Illinois is a high seed in the NIT, they can't host any games due to the construction at the State Farm Center.

Maybe Illinois can catch lightning in a bottle in Chicago this coming weekend, but today's loss hurt, and the Illini watched their tournament hopes grow substantially dimmer in West Lafayette.

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