The Illini, who came from behind in four of their seven victories so far this year, never recovered from a 29-18 run by visiting Maryland in the last five minutes of the game, and saw their non-conference home winning streak broken at 51 as the Terrapins beat the Illini 72-66 at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
The Terrapins (8-0) used hot shooting and a stifling defense to hand the Illini (7-1) their first loss of the season. Maryland came into the game shooting 48% from the field and 37% from behind the arc, and lit the Illini up to the tune of 50% from the field and 56% from behind the arc. The Illini couldn't answer Maryland's hot hand, and struggled from the field, hitting on only 34% of their shots and a meager 25% from 3 point land.
As has been their pattern, the Illini fell behind early in the game, letting Maryland run out to a 15 point lead midway through the first half. Maryland got eight straight points from guard Mike Jones, including back to back three point baskets, as they built their lead.
"At the start of the game, they looked quicker than us…they were all over the place," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "We gave into them. We took quick shots, we didn't finish. I think we played tentative. We were shellshocked at how hard they came at us."
Illinois clawed back into the game on the back of senior forward Warren Carter, who notched a double-double before halftime, scoring 13 points, pulling down 10 rebounds, and blocking a shot before intermission. Carter scored 9 of 11 points for Illinois as they closed the lead to 33-28 at the half.
"I wasn't scared at all," said Carter. "I came out ready to play."
The Illini traded punches with Maryland through the first several minutes of the second half before going on a run to take the lead for the first time since the opening minute on a 3 point basket by Calvin Brock. Shaun Pruitt scored 15 points in the second half to help lead the comeback. The Illini extended the lead to as many as 5 points with less than 9 minutes to go in the game before Maryland counterpunched.
Maryland forced Illinois into back to back turnovers and capitalized by scoring on both chances, and turned a 3 point deficit into a 3 point lead with just under 5 minutes to go, and Illinois could not close the gap.
"We were standing on the bench thinking that they were giving us the game, and we gave it right back to them," said Illinois' Shaun Pruitt. "I thought we had the game, and we didn't keep our poise. You've got to give them credit. They're a good team."
"Once we got the lead, we thought it was going to extend itself. We've got to figure out how to close it out," added Carter. "They just outtoughed us and fought back and took the lead."
"They out-toughed us," echoed Weber. "They wanted it more, Maybe we're tired, I don't know. We've got a lot of guys who haven't been through that. We didn't play smart. We didn't play strong. They just took it to us. Their freshmen kicked out butts for about 2 minutes. We just couldn't finish it."
"I told the kids at one of the timeouts, ‘You're gonna have one shot to win the game. They're trying to give you the game, guys, and you're not taking it. You better get it, or they're gonna come back and get you.' And they did."
The Illini defense, which has been the strong point of the team though the first 7 victories, fell apart in the second half, allowing Maryland to connect on 72% from the field, and the Illini turned the ball over 8 times in the half, three times at critical junctures. The Illini shot better in the second half, but the Terrapins hot shooting prevented Illinois from making up enough ground at the end.
Illinois was led in scoring and rebounding by Pruitt, who notched his third double-double in four games with 18 points and 11 rebounds, both career highs. Carter was held scoreless in the second half, finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Calvin Brock chipped in 11. Mike Jones led Maryland with 19 points and freshman point guard Greivis Vasquez set a career high with 17, including 4 points in the last 3 minutes to help seal the victory.
"We don't lose that much at home," said Pruitt. "It's a terrible feeling hearing the other team celebrating in the locker room and saying that they just beat Illinois. We have nobody to blame but ourselves."
Illini sophomore shooting guard Jamar Smith saw only 15 minutes of action and did not score in the game as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle suffered two weeks ago. "He just couldn't go, he didn't have any strength in the foot. You could just see he didn't have the push. He was like a step behind everything," said Weber.
The Illini will get a day's worth of rest before starting game preparation for Arizona. Illinois will face the 16th-ranked Wildcats in Phoenix on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.