Wisconsin 69, Illinois 60
At about 7:45 p.m. Central Time on Sunday, it appeared Illinois would finally exorcise its demons at its worst house of horrors.
With 12:22 left, the Illini had a 46-33 lead in Madison -- where Illinois had lost its last five games by an average of 18 points per game -- following an 18-1 run.
But familiar fears of the Kohl Center spooked the Illini again as a 13-point second-half lead quickly turned into a nine-point loss. Wisconsin went on a 17-0 run and ended the game on a 36-14 run to beat Illinois for the 10th straight time.
Illinois had two frightful scoring droughts, 5:35 in the first half and 7:13 in the second half.
Wisconsin (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten) has won eight of nine. Illinois (12-15, 4-10 Big Ten), coming off a home win over Rutgers, has not yet won back-to-back Big Ten games.
Over the first 30 minutes, Illinois received star performances from its two junior stars. Malcolm Hill finished with 20 points (7 of 17 FG), seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. Meanwhile, classmate Kendrick Nunn has regained his stroke, scoring 15 points (5 of 13 FG, including 4 of 7 from 3FG).
Illinois took an early 17-11 lead halfway through the first half, but Wisconsin rattled off a 12-0 run as Illinois went on a 5:35 scoring drought. Illinois answered with its own 18-1 run to that lasted into the first couple minutes of the second half as the Badgers went 7:55 without a field goal.
Ethan Happ led the Badgers with 20 points (10-for-14 FT) and 12 rebounds. Nigel Hayes added 17 points, and Bronson Koenig added 14.
Illinois outrebounded Wisconsin 33-31 and made more threes (Illini 9-for-22, Wisconsin 5-for-20). But the Badgers had a huge advantage at the free-throw line (UW 26-for-33, UI 7-for-10). Illinois was called for 26 fouls, while Wisconsin was called for 12 fouls.
Wisconsin also outscored Illinois 24-12 in the paint and 16-6 off turnovers. After shooting 28.6 percent in the first half, Wisconsin shot 68.8 percent in the second half.
What it means
The Illini failed to pick up a win that would've give them some much-needed momentum to end this season. Breaking the losing streak in Madison would've given much-needed positivity following Leron Black's arrest late Thursday for a charge of aggravated assault. John Groce is trying to show fans and his new boss, Josh Whitman, that this program is moving in the right direction. A win would've been a good start. The Illini are showing some individual improvement, but it's inconsistent and still not leading to what matters most: wins.
What went right
Wisconsin started the game 3-for-16 shooting. The Badgers missed 14 of its first 15 three-point attempts. The Illini defensive rotations have improved greatly, and they're closing out better on shooters.
Hill and Nunn played like stars for the first 30 minutes and gave the Illini a chance. Hill continues to play like a top-10 player in the Big Ten, and some may even give him some All-Big Ten First Team votes.
Khalid Lewis (four points, four assists, zero turnovers) isn't the scoring threat Illinois needs at point guard, but he has played his role well at times. He has 12 assists to two turnovers over the last two games and played 31 minutes.
Michael Finke (eight points, five rebounds) finally saw a few shots go through the net (3-for-8 FG, 2-for-4 3FG), but it proved to be too late.
What went wrong
Illinois couldn't put away the Badgers. Though that's easier said than done at Kohl, Illinois had two five-plus minute scoring droughts that just can't happen in an upset bid. Those scoring droughts have become the norm. Part of the struggles are due to personnel. The Illini rely on Hill and Nunn so much because of injuries and the lack of a playmaking point guard. Shot selection continues to be an issue on key possessions as well.
Maverick Morgan (four points, six rebounds) was physical but struggled to finish down low (2 for 6 FG). He fouled out with 5:43 left. Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (four points, 1-for-3FG) forced bad shots coming off screens. Teams don't want him to shoot, so they're riding off those screens and not letting him catch and shoot. He has to continue to develop his midrange and attack game.
Despite a nice end to the game when it was in doubt, Michael Finke continues to be a shell of his nonconference self. The redshirt freshman has no confidence following early shooting woes (due to Big Ten length, strength and scouting) but a knee contusion a few weeks ago also appeared to affect his confidence. The Illini just aren't getting much from someone who at one point this season was their third best player.
The Illini didn't get any help from the whistles. Wisconsin got into the bonus with 13:30 left in the second half.
Star of the game
Ethan Happ: The Rockridge (Ill.) product was the Badgers rock throughout the game. He kept UW in the game during the first-half struggles of Koenig and Hayes. His performance on the glass and the free-throw line helped the Badgers seal the comeback win.
The Illini host Indiana on Thursday for the first of their final two home games. The Hoosiers (22-6, 12-3) mopped the floor with the Illini last month in a 103-69 rout in Bloomington. Despite James Blackmon's season-ending injury, Indiana sits atop the Big Ten with three games remaining. Though, the Hoosiers naturally could look past Illinois with matchups against fellow Big Ten contenders Iowa (11-3 Big Ten) and Maryland (11-4 Big Ten). That's the Illini's hope at least. The Hoosiers are a bad matchup for the defensively deficient Illini because they are dangerous from the outside (second during Big Ten play with 39.4% 3FG) and inside (first during B1G play with 53.2% 2FG). IU senior point guard Yogi Ferrell will be the best player on the floor, and IU freshman Thomas Bryant will be the best big man on the floor. Maybe it'll be the last time Illinois plays either. The Illini will have to play one of their better games and dominate the turnover battle to have a chance. But the Illini are running out of chances to end the season on an uptick. A home game might provide their best chance, but their odds are low (27 percent, according to KenPom.com) with the Big Ten leader coming to town.