In the midst of closing out a tough season and with no hope of making the NCAA Tournament barring a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Illinois Fighting Illini came into the game against Rutgers on Sunday afternoon at the Louis Brown Athletic Center looking to play spoiler on the Scarlet Knights’ senior day.
Although both teams had their fair share of good and bad moments offensively, the story of the game was Illinois’ bench scoring as well as their activity on the defensive end of the floor.
Illinois’ bench outscored Rutgers bench 21-0 at the break behind 10 points from Michael Finke, eight points from Aaron Jordan, and three points from De’Monte Williams. Jordan also connected on both of his three-point attempts, a welcomed sight after struggling from beyond the arc in his last few outings.
The active hands and aggressiveness getting to loose balls paid huge dividends for the Fighting Illini defensively, as they had Rutgers playing sped up at times during the first half.
With Illinois finding their flow offensively as well as forcing havoc on the defensive end, they found themselves clinging to a 35-30 halftime lead.
Rutgers had to be proud of their second half start though, jumping out to a one-point lead over Illinois after scoring the first six points of the half. However, their lead was short-lived, as Trent Frazier knocked down a three-pointer for the Illini less than a minute later to take the lead back.
Responding to whatever was thrown at them seemed to be the story all night for Illinois. Whether it was Trent Frazier, Michael Finke, or Leron Black making a big basket or Te’Jon Lucas or De’Monte Williams knocking the ball away from Rutgers, Illinois continued to have answers for the Scarlet Knights all night.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 25, 2018
In a season where the Illini has been so close and fallen short, it was only fitting that in their last regular season game they put all the pieces together and did to Rutgers what other teams had done to them.
When it mattered most and when the game was on the line, everybody who played today for Illinois made key plays that helped them find a way to capture a 75-62 win over Rutgers and finish the regular season with a 14-17 overall record and a 4-14 record in Big Ten play.
Aside from the momentum that the Illini get from a double-digit win on the road going into the Big Ten Tournament, the game today showed me a lot about the teams’ character and the culture that Brad Underwood is trying to build here at Illinois.
This was a contest where Illinois could have very easily come out flat and held their heads low feeling as if they had nothing to play for. However, it was the exact opposite. This game, as well as every game this season with the exception of at Wisconsin, Illinois came out and battled from beginning to end.
The toughness and resiliency this team has shown all year is a credit to all the players on the team as well as the coaches for keeping them prepared, and it will pay dividends in the future.