Five takeaways from Illini vs. Winthrop

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' collapse vs. Winthrop on Monday night.

CHAMPAIGN -- Winthrop point guard Keon Johnson (38 points) was other-worldly on Monday night at the State Farm Center, but with a 10-point lead with three minutes to go, Illinois still should have won the game.

Instead, the Illini (4-1) collapsed down the stretch and found themselves on the wrong end of an 84-80 loss in overtime.

"Obviously, we knew that was going to be a challenge coming into the game. I thought it was what we needed," Illini head coach John Groce said. "I still think even afterwards it was. Obviously, it's disappointing when you've got a 10-point lead with three minutes to go."

Illini fans will see it as a little more than disappointing. The Orange and Blue slowly let the game slip through their fingers late, and it was all too familiar.

When Illinois needed a big stop, they couldn't get it. When they needed to grab an important rebound, it went the other way. And when they needed a clutch shot to put a bow on a win, it didn't happen.

"We just didn't do a lot of the little stuff that makes us win games," Tracy Abrams said.

"Hopefully, this game helps us understand the value of one possession, two possessions, blocking out -- just stuff like that. We're still learning, still young, it's early in the season but we've definitely, definitely got to do better."

Here are five takeaways from a disappointing defeat on Monday night.

Keon Johnson was unbelievable

First and foremost, the 5-foot-7 (more like 5-foot-4) point guard on the other side was flat out ridiculous. He single-handedly kept Winthrop in the game in the first half with 15 points. And he scored seven of his team's 10 during their 10-0 run to tie the game in the final three minutes of regulation.

Johnson, who missed the previous game with a foot injury, gave his team everything he had. There was a point in overtime when he couldn't even walk. He couldn't be stopped either. Johnson hit some unreal shots. And it was no secret coming into the game that he is a bucket-getter. Illinois just didn't have an answer.

"He made a lot of shots. A lot of tough shots. I was just trying to make it tough for him," Jaylon Tate said. "Give him credit. He made a lot of big shots today."

Tate guarded Johnson for most of the game. Groce said he felt that was the best matchup they could throw at him. Abrams guarded him for a string of possessions in the first half, and he was no match.

Many Illini fans felt that Johnson's explosion was due to Tate's lack of resistance. That certainly wasn't the case for the majority of the game, but there were some key instances where he couldn't keep the jet-quick guard in front.

Time Play Score Analysis
13:42 1st Johnson turnaround jumper 14-6 ILL Abused Abrams
12:58 1st Johnson layup 14-8 ILL Blow by Abrams
11:38 1st Johnson three 15-14 ILL Ball-screen, switch on Mav, too much space
9:23 1st Johnson three 23-18 ILL Ball-screen, switch on Finke, bad help D
7:28 1st Johnson pull-up jumper 25-23 ILL Ball-screen, switch on Thorne, too much space
2:47 1st Johnson pull-up jumper 35-29 ILL Abused Tate off dribble
18:08 2nd Johnson runner 43-36 ILL TOUGH shot
15:13 2nd Johnson three 47-46 ILL 30-footer on in-bounds pass, wide open
11:14 2nd Johnson three 56-51 ILL Jordan lost him, wide open three
7:25 2nd Johnson jumper 61-57 ILL Tough running shot off glass
2:43 2nd Johnson layup 70-62 ILL Blow by Tate
1:40 2nd Johnson three 70-65 ILL Bank-in deep three off of ball-screen
1:08 2nd Johnson runner 70-67 ILL TOUGH runner off the glass
3:26 OT Johnson layup 74-72 WIN Blow by Tate
0:55 OT Johnson scoop shot 80-76 WIN Lost control of ball, regained, stepped through defenders for scoop

As a whole, Tate did a pretty solid job of chasing him around the court. Sometimes, Johnson just made tough shots. Other times, Illinois' help defense was awful. There were multiple instances when a ball-screen left an Illini big man to step up and contest, and they didn't. Of course, it's hard to hedge too hard when he can blow by you in a flash.

Overall, it didn't seem like the Illini were as prepared as they needed to be against him. Winthrop has other players that can make plays. But Johnson was the one killing you, and he didn't see many efforts of running two guys at him. It was mostly him and Tate on an island, and he could use a simple ball-screen to get what he wanted.

Illinois collapsed in crunch time

Even with Johnson putting on one of the best shows the State Farm Center has seen in recent memory, the Illini were right where they needed to be. Tate hit a three with 3:27 left to put Illinois up 70-60.

When Tate hits the fifth three of his career in a huge moment, you feel like it's your night. When you're a Big Ten team that's up 10 on your home floor with three minutes to go against a mid-major, the blood is in the water. Just win the game.

But they fumbled. After Johnson hit a three to cut it to five, Tate threw it away -- leading to another Johnson bucket seven seconds later. On the next possession, Malcolm Hill missed a shot on a drive and lost his shoe. He went after it and held it in his hand on defense. Winthrop grabbed an offensive board on a miss, Hill and Michael Finke ended up guarding the same guy, and Xavier Cooks tied the game with a wide-open three in the corner with 28 seconds left.

After all of that, the Illini had a shot to win. They went with a clear-out for Hill, and he missed a pull-up jumper with still time left on the clock. He had more time -- so much that Leron Black should have been called for a clear shove on the loose ball that would have sent Winthrop to the line with one second left.

There were more chances and more mishaps in overtime. After Johnson blew by Tate for a hoop, Tate got stripped for a breakaway dunk by Tevin Prescott. With less than a minute, Illinois was down four with Leron Black at the line. He missed both free throws. The Illini ultimately got it back and scored, but time was wearing thin.

Illinois needed some help after Abrams scored to make it 82-80 with 15 ticks left. And they got it with a deflection by Jalen Coleman-Lands on a pass attempt to Johnson. Finke dove on the floor to get the ball, but he then threw it away. Winthrop gave the Illini one more shot by missing the front end of the one-and-one after that, but Illinois couldn't secure the rebound.

Chance after chance after chance. Winthrop is a good team. Johnson is a fantastic player. But Illinois had no business choking this away, and it could be one we look back at in March.

Malcolm Hill was a huge letdown

It was very clear to see what Winthrop's best player was able to provide. He left no doubt. Nothing more to be desired.

And then there was Hill on the other side. His stroke was in a groove in the first half, as he hit four threes on five attempts. Looking more and more like a Denzel Valentine-like evolution with his outside game.

But Hill did essentially nothing after halftime. He was 0-of-10 from the field with no points, while playing 23 of the final 25 minutes. He had four boards and three turnovers during that time. He finished 4-of-17 on field goal attempts with seven turnovers.

"I didn't think he played great. Obviously, I've got a lot of respect for Malcolm," Groce said. "I just didn't think he played real well. He'll play better."

Even great players miss shots. They'll throw it away here and there. But Illinois couldn't afford to have Hill go in a hole in this game.

The old adage of 'big-time players make big-time plays' applies. Hill didn't make one after halftime. He couldn't even find a way to get himself to the free-throw line against a team that's not exactly known to be gifted defensively.

As a senior that's trying to lead his team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in his career, this is a night when you can't afford to be nonexistent down the stretch. You have to find a way to lead. Find a way to will your team.

Illini need more from bigs

The Illini frontcourt got plenty of hype in the preseason and early on in the schedule. And now, they will take their due criticism.

Maverick Morgan was Illinois' most productive player in the two exhibition games and the first two regular season games. But he was bad last Friday against Detroit, and he was again on Monday. Morgan finished with four points, three rebounds and three turnovers in 23 minutes. His defense is not good at all. And his lack of rebounding is frustrating.

The same can be said of Mike Thorne Jr. and Finke in regards to rebounding and defense. Thorne was supposed to be an impact rebounder like he was for his stretch last season. It has not happened. He had one board in 11 minutes, and he had three fouls.

Finke had 18 points in 30 minutes, and the Illini will certainly take that. But he's bad defensively as well. And he finished with five rebounds, which isn't great by any stretch -- especially against a four-guard team.

Florida State scored 50 points in the paint against Winthrop on Friday. They dominated on the interior by using their length and athleticism. Illinois could not do that, and they don't have that athleticism.

Morgan, Finke and Thorne are all capable scorers. Their field goal percentages and points production will probably look just fine throughout the season. But big guys have to rebound and defend at an adequate level. They have to take advantage of mismatches too. They failed in that regard.

Deaf ears to excuses

Groce has said countless times that he doesn't like excuses. We heard them all of last season, and it made sense with the injuries that Illinois incurred. But the beautiful thing about this season is that those are gone -- at least, in terms of relevance.

Abrams said his team is still learning. It's still early in the season. That's not exactly what Illini fans want to hear. This is a veteran team. One that self-proclaimed that the sky is the limit. Prove it.

There's no time to wait around and be patient. It's now or never. That's not the way to start a five-game stretch of legit challenges -- ones that will be in bold on your tournament resume.

Groce said it was a matter of too many mistakes.

"When you go up against a team like that and a kid has an individual performance like that -- they're that old and they're that good -- and you turn it 22 times and you foul like we did, just too many mistakes," he said. The Illini are older than that team. They should be better than that team. You're in the Big Ten. You're at Illinois. No one is going to listen to anything else.

Groce said the final stretch of regulation was one where "everything's gotta go wrong for us and right for them". It did, but that's not an excuse. You're healthy. You're at home. You have a double-digit lead. Win the game. That's what this is all about.

There are no excuses for what happened. There are reasons. Fouls. Turnovers. Tough shots. Free throws. But you could say one significant reason is coaching. The lack of defensive adjustments or scheming for Johnson was evident. That wasn't all.

Groce said he thought his guys were tired at the end. He admitted that he maybe should have went to his bench more. Te'Jon Lucas didn't see the floor. D.J. Williams played just three minutes. Coleman-Lands only played 20 minutes, including 10 of the final 25. If you're going to let the opponent shoot 50 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three, you might as well have your best shotmaker on the floor more than that -- even if he isn't a great defender.

You can't go without talking about Illinois' last-possession strategy at the end of regulation either. The Illini didn't have a timeout, and they went with what fans have seen a number of times with a chance to tie or win the game: clear-out for Hill.

It didn't work at Providence last year, as Hill drove and missed a layup, and Finke missed the follow. It didn't work at home against Ohio State, as Hill used an iso to shoot a three that got blocked. It didn't work against Northwestern, as Hill got an in-bounds pass with space towards the three-point line and he didn't get off a shot.

More times than not, you want the ball in your best player's hands. But doing something over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity -- at least that's what Albert Einstein said. There's a good argument that Abrams was the one who should have had the ball in his hands. He was in fact 7-of-12 on the night.

Bottom line, this loss hurts. But you have to move on. There's no choice with No. 19 West Virginia waiting for you on Thursday. Illinois has to respond and show what they're made of. They have to beat some quality opponents in the nonconference. They're 0-for-1 so far.

It's pretty simple: Get it done. No one is buying excuses now, and they definitely won't in March.

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