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Free throw battle burns men's basketball in loss at Illinois

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Junior forward Juwan Morgan looks for an open teammate to pass to Wednesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. Morgan missed five free-throw attempts in IU's 73-71 loss to Illinois. Noble Guyon Buy Photos

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There had been worse free throw performances by the Hoosiers this season.

The 12-29 free throw effort in a November win against Howard was worrying, and even the 12-22 mark IU delivered from the line while beating Northwestern less than two weeks ago should have been a sign.

Wednesday night at Illinois, an abysmal showing at the charity stripe finally cost IU a win as Illinois beat IU 73-71 behind a second half rally. 

Neither team was even close to perfect on their free throws, as Illinois missed nine of its 32 attempts — 30 of which came in the second half. But it was IU that had the truly discouraging free throw numbers. 

The Hoosiers shot just 16-29 on free throws, good for 55 percent, as three different players — junior forward Juwan Morgan, sophomore guard Devonte Green and senior forward Collin Hartman — missed at least three attempts.

“That’s something you can talk about or practice or whatnot," IU Coach Archie Miller said. "But it seems to become something for our team that’s a little bit contagious. We needed to keep a lead by getting free throws.”

IU had the lead its coach wanted for most of the game, losing it only when the Illini went on a 10-0 run that ended around the 11-minute mark in the second half. Up to that point, the Hoosiers had led the entire game despite their free throw woes.

Hardly anyone was immune to the struggles at the stripe. Senior guard Josh Newkirk made his only two attempts, and his backcourt classmate Robert Johnson avoided blame by virtue of not attempting a free throw all game. 

Junior forward Juwan Morgan, the unquestioned star of the game for IU yet again, was the biggest culprit.

Morgan scored 28 points on an efficient 12-14 shooting performance from the field. But the big man left enough points at the line in his five missed free throws to have won the game. Morgan blamed the snowball effect for IU’s game-long free throw issues. As a team, IU made only three of eight first-half free throw attempts while Morgan went 2-5.

“Missing the first couple really affected the rest of us,” Morgan said. “Especially myself, because I kept thinking about it too much, and you can’t think when you’re up there at the line.”

Even as IU let its lead slip away and was forced to play from behind late in the second half, missed free throws still burned the Hoosiers in the final minute. Sophomore guard Devonte Green split a pair with eight seconds left, and when Illinois missed both of its subsequent free throws on the other end, the Hoosiers could have had a shot to win the game while trailing by just one.

It was all for naught when Green’s pass to Morgan in the paint slipped out of Morgan’s hands in the closing seconds. Nonetheless, the Hoosier players are aware of what cost them the game Wednesday night.

With a home game against No. 3 Purdue approaching on Sunday, free points won’t come easy. If they do, Morgan and others know they’ll need to capitalize.

“We’ve been playing the game for a long time,” Morgan said. “It’s time to start hitting free throws.”

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