Rutgers 62, Illinois 59
Illinois' NCAA tournament hopes and improbably-earned winning streak painfully slipped away with a 62-59 loss at Rutgers (18-13, 3-15) on Saturday in the regular season finale.
That's right, Rutgers.
The Illini came out flat from the get-go with a 7-0 deficit less than two minutes into the game. They were down by three at the half. But they survived all of that to go on a 15-to-2 run that was capped off with back-to-back threes by Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke to go up 44-34 with 14:44 left.
But that 10-point lead went down to three less than two minutes later, thanks in large part to two treys by Mike Williams. Rutgers completely evaporated that lead after a layup by Deshawn Freeman made it 47 all at the 9:12 mark.
In the meantime, Illinois was in the midst of nearly a six-minute drought without a field goal. But Te'Jon Lucas banked in a three to end that. It was ugly, but it seemed like that's how the Illini would get it done. Ugly but just enough.
Maverick Morgan put in two straight hoops soon after to give Illinois a five-point advantage. But you have to get stops to win, and the Illini could not stop the Scarlet Knights down the stretch.
Corey Sanders, who scored 39 points against Illinois last season in Piscataway, scored three straight baskets in the paint to put Rutgers up 55-54. Malcolm Hill responded with a big three, but Sanders came back and tied it at the line. He tied the game again with another drive through the lane with 56 ticks to go.
The Illini called a timeout following Sanders' bucket. They had made just one bucket since the seven-minute mark. And Tracy Abrams got a driving lane and attempt at a layup. But he missed, and he swiped at the ball while he was out of bounds on the rebound to give Rutgers the ball and last shot.
Everyone in the building figured Sanders would take the final opportunity. But as the Illinois defense sagged towards the middle, Sanders found Freeman for a deep three and the win.
Freeman is the only player on Rutgers' roster with a three-point percentage higher than 40 percent, though he only had five made threes on the season heading into this game. The Scarlet Knights have one of the worst three-point percentages in the nation. They're one of the worst offensive teams in the nation.
But Illinois' defense, which has been highlighted during their winning streak, couldn't stop them.
The Illini fall to 18-13 on the season and 8-10 in Big Ten play. They will play in the 8-9 game in the Big Ten tournament at 11 a.m. CT on Thursday.
Groce now sports a 37-53 record in the Big Ten. He's 14-31 on the road in conference play. And he might be right back under the microscope.
What it means
A number of bracketologists had Illinois in the NCAA tournament heading into Saturday. ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who has been one of the doubters of Illinois' resume, had them in his 'first four out' on Saturday. A dance ticket was in plain sight. And now it's a plane that has zoomed past like a stadium fly-over. All because of Rutgers. Rutgers. RUTGERS.
That's one part of the equation. The other is Groce. And he's seemed safe after the late-season run. But this loss is a bad black eye when all eyes were watching. Knowing what you're playing for. Knowing the caliber of team you're playing. It can't happen.
What went right
Hill played well for the bulk of the game -- with the exception of some big misses late. He finished with 16 points, seven assists and two steals in 39 minutes.
Does a loss to Rutgers deserve much more in this category?
What went wrong
Illinois' defense has been the biggest catalyst for their winning streak. It's been their strength. And offense is Rutgers' weakness. They're a terrible offensive team. Statistically. Eye test. All of it. But they made five of their last seven shots when Illinois' season was on the line.
The Illini did what they said they weren't going to do: They had a letdown. And they came out flat. Right off the bat, Illinois gave up a three by Williams with space. Then, they turned it over. And Rutgers got a fastbreak basket right away. Down 5-0 before they could rub the sleep out of their eyes.
Reverting to iso ball late. Yes, Illinois wanted the ball in Hill's hands late. But as we've seen so many times before, there were too many times when he was in isolation with the rest of the team standing and watching. It didn't look like anyone else was confident enough or wanted it enough to take a shot. And it was a big part of why the Illini made one shot in the last seven minutes.
Leron Black provided a huge spark in the first half against Michigan State. But he was bad on Saturday. He was 0-of-3 from the field with a turnover in just five minutes to start the game. He finished 1-of-5 from the field for two points.
Finke's shot. He hit a three during Illinois' run in the second half. But he was just 1-of-5 from deep on the game. He's made just two of the last nine threes that he's taken. He also had a bad turnover. And he doesn't exactly help you defensively.
Took too long for Mav to get going. Morgan finished with 16 points, which tied Hill for the team-high. But he was 1-of-5 from the field in the first half with two fouls. On the other side, C.J. Gettys had eight points and six rebounds in the first half. The wrong center won that battle in the first 20 minutes.
With everything to play for late -- just like Illinois did against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament in 2014 -- Abrams missed a bunny that would have given Illinois the lead. Maybe Rutgers doesn't take a deep three knowing that a miss would lose instead of going to overtime.
The Illini will head to the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. and play in the 8-9 game. Their opponent will be either Iowa or Michigan -- both 9-8 in Big Ten play heading into Sunday. If Iowa wins at home against Penn State, they will be the No. 7 seed, and Illinois will play Michigan in the 8-9. If Iowa loses and Michigan wins at Nebraska, Illinois will play Iowa in the 8-9 and Michigan will be the No. 7 seed. The Illini swept the Hawkeyes in the season series with a four-point win in Iowa City in the most recent battle. Illinois split with Michigan, as both teams took care of business on their home floor.