Chattanooga 81, Illinois 77
Another game, another late heartbreaker for the Illini basketball team - losing to Chattanooga on Saturday night 81-77.
The Illini were able to erase what was once a 15-point lead for the Mocs, and they took their first lead with 11:31 left on the clock. That lead was extended to 69-60 for the Illini with 6:29 to go, as Malcolm Hill (25 points) was in takeover mode. But when it mattered most, the Illini could not get stops at the other end.
Chattanooga hit their last five shots, including four three-pointers during the final five minutes. Even after that, the Illini had a chance being down by just two, thanks to a triple by Michael Finke and a turnover at the other end. But just like Wednesday night against Providence, the Illini could not get the winning basket - as Finke missed a three-pointer and the Mocs corralled the rebound with 12 seconds to go.
What it means
For many in Illini nation, the sky is falling. The Illini are 1-3 for the first time since the 1965-66 season, and more tough tests await them next week at the Emerald Coast Classic. At this point, it seems logical to think that Illinois cannot salvage their nonconference slate and make a push for the NCAA tournament. In fact, some will wonder if this can be a .500 basketball team when the season ends in March. There are talented pieces on this team, and they still are not at full strength. But this team's deficiencies, especially at the defensive end, are quite alarming.
What went right
Hill stepped up when the Illini needed him, and he looked like an All-Big Ten player. Not only did Hill make big-time moves during a key run in the second half, but he produced with a high level of efficiency (8-13 from the field). Mike Thorne also put up a good stat line with 18 points and 11 rebounds. The Illini showed fight when they got punched in the mouth. Other than that, not many positives to take away from this one.
What went wrong
The Illini came out of the gates sleepwalking, as they found themselves down by double digits in the first half once again. They were flat out awful defensively during large stretches, and they continue to allow a high amount of easy buckets. The Illini struggle to guard the dribble drive. They lose their man in rotation. And there have been too many cases of not knowing personnel and leaving shooters open. Furthermore, Illinois had an extremely difficult time with Chattanooga's fullcourt pressure in the early stages. And ultimately, they couldn't make the big play when the game was in the balance. The Illini were also banking on freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands to step up, and he was scoreless with three turnovers.
Star of the game
Chuck Ester: Chattanooga won with a balanced attack on Saturday night, as six guys scored in double figures. Ester was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field, and he hit two huge threes during the final six minutes of the game.
Illinois will make their final stop at the Prairie Capital Convention Center on Monday when they host Chicago State at 7 p.m. CT. The Cougars are 3-1 on the season, but they fell 106-64 against Iowa State during their only tough test. The Illini will follow up Monday's game with a trip to the Emerald Coast Classic, where they'll play UAB on Friday.