Amidst all the outside speculation and internal disappointment, Illini head coach John Groce encouraged his team to only focus on the present moment -- and his team took advantage of that moment on Tuesday night with a 68-61 win at Northwestern.
It was Illinois' first win on the road all season, and the program's first since Feb. 3, 2016 at Rutgers. And it was a win against a top-four team in the Big Ten, who is not only your rival, but also two wins shy from tying a school record and one or two more away from the school's first tournament berth.
Yes, Northwestern was without their leading scorer Scottie Lindsey. And no, one win following a 1-6 stretch isn't saving a season or a coach. But it was a moment -- albeit brief in the big picture -- that was deserved by the players and the coaching staff.
"We're gonna try to stay in the moment. We talked a lot about that as a group over the last day or two," Groce said. "A lot of people want to talk about the past, which you have no control over. You want to talk about the future, which you also have no control over. So you've got to stay in the moment, and I thought our guys did that."
The Illini stayed in the moment when they came up empty on eight of their first nine possessions to start the game, which found them down 8-2 just more than five minutes in. A 'here we go again' could have easily crept into the mind of a team that has quickly spiraled downward on the road each time before -- with a season that has been quickly spiraling down.
Instead, Illinois kept battling and got out to a 15-0 run. One of their best stretches of the Big Ten season. But the nine-point lead Illinois had slowly but surely evaporated by the time they went into halftime.
The Illini came back out fighting in the second half, though. After going scoreless in the first half, Malcolm Hill started to get going. He had a stretch early in the second half where he scored or assisted on 12 straight points -- putting Illinois up 49-43 with 9:41 left after dishing one out to Michael Finke for a three.
Both teams were tied heading into the final media timeout. And on the first play out, Illinois blew a coverage and allowed Vic Law to hit a wide-open trey in the corner to take the lead. Maverick Morgan turned the ball over on the following possession. Would the effort fall apart?
No, because just more than 30 seconds later, Finke hit a big three to tie it up. Then, he got a steal at the other end. With 1:19 left, he got another one and then hit a turnaround jumper in the lane.
Meanwhile, the Illinois defense buckled down. The same defense that got walloped so many other times on the road. And also the same defense that showed improvement at home last week, but couldn't be paired with enough made shots.
But it wasn't about any of that. It was about this one game. Northwestern didn't make a field goal after Law's three with 3:31 left. They went 0-of-4 from the field with five turnovers. Illinois pressured the ball. They rotated and recovered. They executed.
It was a welcomed change. The Illini held the Wildcats to a 33.9 percent mark from the field on the game. That's the lowest of any opponent they've played in the Big Ten. The previous low in their five road losses was when Michigan shot 45.1 percent in Ann Arbor. In three of the other four, Illinois' opponent shot well over 50 percent.
The Illini also held Northwestern to just 12 points in the paint, which is the fewest they've given up to any team all year.
Illinois got big contributions from their freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols. Lucas just flat out made plays with the ball in his hands. That's when Illinois' offense has the most life, and he showed that with 11 points and six assists. Meanwhile, Nichols came right off the bench and gave the Illini another spark. He got to the basket for a lay-in and then hit a three. He finished with nine points and three rebounds.
And to Groce's credit, he made the proper adjustments. Finally. Lucas is clearly his best point guard, and he played 33 minutes (a career-high). Nichols lifted Illinois, and instead of being the fourth man off the bench after halftime like he was in the last game, he started the second half over Aaron Jordan. And when Finke got hot in the second half, Groce rode with him -- keeping him in for 9:04 of the final 10:38 of the game.
All in all, credit where credit is due on the given night. This is still a team that has under achieved. It's still a coach that is a ways away from changing people's minds. And there's a good chance he won't.
That's the tough part of the business. The tough part of being in the Big Ten. But as Groce used to always say, "that's why you choose Illinois".
"You choose this deal, you gotta know what you're choosin' now," Groce said back in Year One.
Recognizing the human element at times is okay, though. It's not easy for a guy like Hill to spend every day in the Ubben gym (even during summer break when his teammates were home), put up the type of numbers that he has over his career and face the reality that his tournament dream is a long shot. But he and his team are still fighting.
It's not easy for Groce to hang on for dear life with his family while Illini nation and media covering the team advocate for a 'for sale' sign in his yard -- even being fair game. It's not easy to have his boss due-diligently look for his potential replacement. And yeah, Groce gets paid $1.7 million to have feelings taken out of the equation.
But his team earned that one moment on Tuesday night. It had to feel good. And he earned that moment, as well as the postgame hug from Illini athletic director Josh Whitman. It had to feel good.
But again, it's a results-based business and not a good-guy business. If that were the case, Ron Turner and Bruce Weber would probably still be coaching in Champaign.
Bottom line: There's only so many grains of sand left in the hourglass. How this team and coaching staff respond the rest of the way will say something -- even if Whitman doesn't flip the glass over for another run-through at the end of the day.