Illini eventually pull out a slug fest with Minnesota: Win 81-72 in 2 OT
Welcome to Big Ten basketball. Illinois beats Minnesota in the first game of the conference season, in double overtime. In the long run (say come March) we will probably forget the fact that in both regulation and the first overtime, Minnesota had a chance to seal a win with less than 20 seconds to go, and whiffed both times.
As a Twitter follower noted, we are one Gopher free throw from talking about Bruce Weber on the hot seat. But as these things go, the win makes you remember the good, and forget (at least somewhat) the bad. There was plenty of both tonight though.
Illinois had built up a 48-35 lead with 13 and change to go in the game. The game was in hand, then the youth started to show again. The next Illinois possessions went as follows:
The result was Minnesota going on a 10-0 run, the trajectory of the game completely changing, and a no pressure game being transformed into a high pressure game. yada yada yada. We went to overtime.
That stretch, and a little more, is the definition of why many are still waiting on this team to see if they can realize their talent. The Illini committed 21 turnovers, 6 of which came from their floor leader Brandon Paul. They can go stretches without scoring because the offense isn't all on the same page, and the defense can give up sudden spurts because the bench is almost all freshmen.
At the same time though everyone recognizes just how talented the young guys on this team are, adding Joe Bertrand to the list of Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard and DJ Richardson of players with huge upside.
After all, its not as though that huge lead came from nowhere. For one, we saw the continued emergence of Joe Bertrand from his shell, and he made the most of it against tonight. Joe had a spurt of 9 points in about five minutes in the first half, and we saw the athleticism of a player that has what the other guards don't often show, an instinct to head for the basket and to create a shot.
Bertrand finished the game with 13 points, and a block in the second overtime that was just as valuable as any of his points. That is two straight games where he has been in double figures, where he was mostly an afterthought in every game leading up to this. The light has gone on and he looks comfortable with his game, and nothing is so cool as when this much hard work pays off.
More good of course can be seen from Meyers Leonard. Defensive issues aside down the stretch, Meyers Leonard was the difference in this game. It wasn't just the free throws to close the game out, it wasn't just the spin move to the finger roll drive that saved a botched possession (though it was oh so epic) it was the rebounds down the stretch, and it was the killer instinct that this team needs. Meyers seems to have a reputation now as a rough player, and that nearly may have cost him tonight, as an inadvertent elbow had to be reviewed to see if he was throwing them. But overall, that rough, physical game and anger and passion is exactly what this team needs.
It seems a stretch to say this, but any offensive possession that doesn't get a meaningful touch from Meyers Leonard is a wasted one. Meyers had his own turnover problems tonight with five, but you can't tell me that he is the difference between relevance and anonymity for this team. I know he is leaving for the league next year, and I want to see this team get everything they can out of him.
If you want another bright side from this game, the Illini won a game where they shot terribly from distance (33%) and still managed to win. I suppose we can thank Joe Bertrand for that fact, who wont take many threes this year.
This is another bullet dodged for the Illini, and will only pay dividends in the conference race and on Selection Sunday. It was also an important win emotionally. The team is coming off of losses on big stages against great teams, and having lost a player to transfer today. Who knows what a loss could have done to this team? Who knows what it could have done to this season? Many bad things to be sure.
Fact is though, it was a win, however improbably. Illinois is now 12-2, and 1-0 in conference. They travel to West Lafayette on Saturday to take on Purdue, and maybe start a nice run of wins to start the season. Things can hinge on the weirdest of moments, and Julian Welch missing that free throw may very well have dramatically altered the trajectory of this Illinois season.
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