Saturday might have marked the Hoosiers’ third game already in conference play, but IU coach Tom Crean’s squad received a good taste of what it will be facing during the rest of the season.
On a day in which Wisconsin handed Purdue its first loss and Ohio State fell to 1-3 in league play, IU dropped a hard-fought yet winnable game to an Illinois team that is tied for first in the Big Ten.
With IU especially, no double digit lead is safe, and certainly not against an experienced and well-disciplined team like Illinois. The Fighting Illini deserve a lot of credit for making the correct adjustments in the second half, and they also were able to benefit from a cold second half-shooting Hoosier team (and, yes, some questionable fouls called against IU).
The way the Illini have played virtually all season long – winning many of their games from behind and often going on large runs to cut big deficits – the Hoosiers needed a great start.
And they got one.
After trailing 8-6, IU went on a 25-9 run to grab a 31-17 lead. Freshman guard Jordan Hulls had 11 points in the first 8:08, and the Hoosiers helped hold the Illini to five field goals in the entire half.
As Illinois coach Bruce Weber said, his team “didn’t respond to the physicality of the game” from the get-go. But they quickly turned things around – especially as Illinois began getting to the free throw line and putting IU in early foul trouble.
Among other things, Illinois adjusted to IU’s ball pressure and kept feeding it inside to 7-foot-1 center Mike Tisdale.
In the game’s first 12 minutes, the Riverton, Ill., native managed just two points – both free throws. However, Tisdale finished with 27 points, including an impressive 13-of-14 showing from the free throw line, as well as 9 rebounds.
He was also efficient from the floor, making 7 of his last 9 shot attempts and 5-of-7 in the second half to help close the gap.
"We were trying to be physical with him, and he’s a great player. He’s really, really long,” IU freshman forward Bobby Capobianco said. “When you’re in front, they’re going to throw over. When you’re behind, he can shoot over ... We tried the best we could to keep him at bay, and he ended up being in the right spots a lot of times.”
Tisdale and junior guard Demetri McCamey’s combined 9-of-10 second-half free-throw shooting was especially key, as it helped Illinois put points on the board without any time running off the clock.
This, Weber said, was “part of our strategy.”
IU might not face another big man like Tisdale for the rest of the year, but they will continue to be challenged by quality teams with quality coaching.
For much of the second half, when Illinois began chipping away at IU’s lead, Crean’s team showed its resiliency. For example, after a 9-0 run by the Illlini sophomore guard Verdell Jones converted an old-fashioned three-point play and brought the crowd to its feet.
IU found other creative ways to score – including a running hook by freshman forward Christian Watford and a no look pass from junior guard Jeremiah Rivers to a cutting Capobianco.
But Illinois always seemed to have an answer.
The Hoosiers also missed a number of open looks in the second half – which contributed to their 1-of-11 3-point shooting after the half – and IU got sloppy late while Illinois kept their composure. In fact, the Fighting Illini finished the game on an 18-3 run.
As Crean admitted, there was plenty of encouraging aspects of his team’s performance. But as IU presses further, it might be much of the same. Early leads are great, but keeping them and holding off veteran teams will continue to be a challenge.
With two upcoming road tests and a home contest against 12-4 Minnesota next Sunday, it will continue to be tough for IU to come away victorious – even when they come out playing hot like they did Saturday.
Illinois showed it wouldn’t back down Saturday. It is critical for IU to continue to try to do the same.
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