Illinois 75, BYU 73
CHICAGO - Eric Mika will make a lot of money playing basketball. The BYU sophomore (25 points and seven rebounds) showed why on an NBA court on Saturday, scoring in the post, on the elbow and on the run.
But he is just one man, and Illinois overpowered his Cougars (7-4) at the United Center by using its strength in numbers. Five Illini scored in double figures as Illinois (9-3) won its fifth straight.
The Ilini win came with a deep sigh and a brow swipe though as Yoeli Childs' last-second, potential game-winner 35-footer was on line but hit off the back of the rim.
Maverick Morgan (7-for-10 FG) played well head-to-head against Mika, finishing with his second career double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds). Tracy Abrams (6-for-15 FG) led Illinois with 15 points with the senior scoring 10 in the second half. Jalen Coleman-Lands (4-for-13 FG, including 4-for-10 from three) added 12 points.
Illinois claimed a 37-21 lead with 5:41 left in the first half, but BYU rattled off an 11-0 run to cut the deficit to 43-37 by halftime.
The game was in the balance the rest of the way with BYU getting within 69-68 in the closing minutes. But a Morgan jumper, Abrams steal and layup and two Hill free throws proved to be enough to ensure the win.
Illinois outrebounded BYU 39-36 and matched the Cougars 32-32 on points in the paint. BYU shot 43 percent, while Illinois shot 47 percent.
What it means
Illinois didn't make it easy on themselves, but it is one step away from escaping the nonconference with a do-able start to its NCAA Tournament resume. The loss to Winthrop still stings and the Illini haven't made up for that one yet -- especially since NC State, VCU and BYU aren't certain NCAA Tournament teams themselves. But they haven't dug a deeper hole either. The Illini seem to be finding a rhythm too, but they'll need to be more consistent -- especially with a tough start to the Big Ten schedule.
What went right
Illinois made a concerted effort early on to get the ball inside to Morgan and Thorne -- and when they did, good things happened. More on that later.
"Good Mav" and #ToughMav showed up. Morgan showed confidence on offense and toughness on the glass. He's undeniably skilled, and schooled Mika -- a future pro -- several times on the block. If he brings that mindset every night, he's one of the best players on this team.
Finke found some confidence. The sophomore stretch-four had just eight points on 2-for-16 shooting the previous five games (76 minutes). On Saturday, he never hesitated with his shot and was active on the glass.
The Illini bench outscored BYU 28-7.
Hill and Abrams struggled most of the night and made some key mistakes, but they also made some big plays down the stretch.
What went wrong
The Illinois offense had little purpose for most of the second half. BYU mixed in more zone, and the Illini struggled to get the ball in the post and settled for contested jumpers.
The Illini's three best players struggled. Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams both had poor shot selection, especially considering how efective the Illini were when they made post touches. Leron Black (four points, four rebounds in 16 minutes) played just eight first-half minutes due to two fouls and picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the second half. He has to foul less and stay on the court. He's too important to the team.
Illinois stopped feeding the post during BYU's late first-half run and also committed careless turnovers.
Jaylon Tate is probably too much of a lightning rod for Illini fans, but their frustration with Groce playing him so many minutes is understandable. The offense turns into 4-on-5. Tate does some things well -- and made a clutch jumper in the final minutes -- and Groce trusts him in what is a make-or-break season. But failing to play Te'Jon Lucas -- a more talented, dynamic player -- any minutes the past two games may cost this team (and Groce) in the long-run this season.
Kipper Nichols made his debut. But the redshirt freshman forward fouled on his first possession and was a minus-7 on the court in that minute.
Free throws. BYU made 14 of 18 compared to the Illini's 5-for-11 performance, which almost cost them a win.
Illinois heads to St. Louis for the annual Braggin' Rights Game against Missouri. The streaky series is currently on the side of the Illini, which have won three straight -- and it'd be a big disappointment if it doesn't reach four. Missouri (5-5) is coming off a 67-64 home loss to Eastern Illinois. Third-year coach Kim Anderson is now 24-49 at Mizzou and certainly is the coach on the hotter seat entering Saturday's game. But the Tigers have only lost the last three Braggin' Rights games by a combined nine points. Many former players say you can "throw out the records" for this game. But if Illinois loses, that's a pretty trashy loss heading into a gauntlet to start Big Ten play.
(Note: The live stats have the wrong logos next to the wrong teams)