Illinois 110, Rutgers 101 3OT
Illinois (11-12, 3-7) needed triple overtime to beat a team that had lost 24 straight against Big Ten opponents, as they came away with a 110-101 victory at Rutgers (6-17, 0-10) in a wild one on Wednesday night.
It was the kind of game that will leave Illini fans grasping for words, but Illinois securing a victory certainly beats the alternative.
The Illini outscored Rutgers 17-to-8 in the third overtime period, as Malcolm Hill led the way with 10 points in the final five minutes in route to a team-high 32 points. Jalen Coleman-Lands (26 points) and Maverick Morgan (20 points) finished with career-highs.
This was the first game the Illini played with both teams scoring 100-plus since Dec. 22, 1993 against Missouri.
Illinois shot 45 percent from the field (35-of-77) and 34 percent from three (10-of-29). A big reason for the Illini closing it out was their ability to convert at the free-throw line, as they went 30-of-34 from the stripe.
But on the other side of the coin, the Illini could have made this one easier on themselves.
Illinois blew a seven-point lead with 27 seconds left in overtime. After Khalid Lewis made one of two free throws, Illinois led by three with 11 seconds to go. The Illini could have fouled but they elected to play it out. The result: Rutgers point guard Corey Sanders hit a fall-away three at the buzzer to send it into double OT.
In the second overtime period, neither team scored in the final two minutes. Sanders missed a layup with 19 seconds to go. John Groce could have called a timeout to set up a play. But he let it ride, and Hill missed a jumper to extend the game even further.
Luckily, those moments won't define this one. To their credit, Rutgers gave Illinois all they could handle. Sanders was fantastic with a game-high 39 points and 12 assists.
What it means
With all of their injuries, Illinois is not much better than the worst team in the Big Ten. In fact, Rutgers came into this one as the worst team in any of the power conferences - according to the Ken Pom rankings. There are plenty of areas for concern, but you'd expect that with any team that has their top three big guys and projected starting point guard sidelined. Perception is important for Groce and this program, and many fans won't feel better about what they saw - looking at it through an unfiltered lense. It is comparable to beating Chicago State (4-20) on a buzzer-beater earlier this season. From another vantage point, the Illini battled and scrapped for a win on the road with a depleted roster. Whichever way you look at it, the most important thing is that the Illini survived.
What went right
The Illini got a win. It wasn't pretty, and not many people expected it to be. With Michael Finke joining the street-clothes crew, the short-handed Illini needed to just find a way to victory instead of disaster. The eye test may have told you otherwise at times, but Illinois did that by getting the win.
Hill stuffed the stat sheet. In addition to his 32 points, Hill added a career-high 14 rebounds to go along with five assists. He was able to ice the game at the free-throw line as well - going 17-of-20 on the game.
Coleman-Lands and Morgan stepped up to make shots. With Kendrick Nunn going 3-of-13 from the field, the Illini needed others to produce. Coleman-Lands hit a career-high six triples, while Morgan went 10-of-14 from the field.
The Illini also got improved point guard play at the offensive end, as Lewis put together some solid numbers with nine points, eight assists and only one turnover. Groce elected to play Lewis 46 minutes compared to nine minutes for Jaylon Tate.
What went wrong
Rutgers sliced up the Illinois defense to their liking. The Knights came into this one with an offensive efficiency rating and effective field goal percentage that ranked in the 300s of the 351 D-1 teams. But they had no problem scoring points against the faulty Illini defense.
Rutgers shot 45.9 percent from the field, and they scored 40 points in the first 20 minutes of the game. The Illini were also beaten up down low. Rutgers won the rebounding battle 52-to-43, even though they have the worst rebounding margin of anyone in the Big Ten. The Knights also crushed the Illini with points in the paint, as they outscored them 54-to-36 in that category.
On Tuesday, Groce pointed out his defense as the major positive about his team over the previous two games. But that was far from the case on Wednesday night.
And you can't talk about things going wrong without pointing to injuries. Illinois has had seven different players miss a combined 68 games due to injury or other circumstances. That is an unfathomable stat, and it makes the evaluation of this season difficult (or near impossible) to calculate.
Star of the game
Malcolm Hill: The best player on the winning team looked the part down the stretch. He outscored Rutgers by himself 10-to-8 in the final overtime period.
The Illini will go from playing the worst team in the conference to playing No. 5 Iowa (17-4, 8-1) on Sunday at the State Farm Center. The Hawkeyes have the current favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year in Jarrod Uthoff. Iowa's only loss in the Big Ten was at Maryland. The Illini are 16-16 in Big Ten games at home under Groce.