It all started with an inbound pass, or a lack thereof.
Indiana men’s basketball held a 46-42 lead and the momentum over No. 18 Illinois with 13 minutes left to play. The crowd was chanting “airball” after a pair of 3-pointers from Illinois failed to hit the rim, and junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis made a bucket after sitting for most of the first half with two fouls.
The Fighting Illini answered in the form of two 3-point buckets from graduate student forward Jacob Grandison, which gave them their first lead since the score was 4-2 early in the first.
Four Hoosiers ran down the court on offense after Grandison’s second make, leaving senior guard Xavier Johnson helpless trying to inbound the ball by himself. Johnson was forced to call a timeout.
Grandison’s pair of 3-point makes were the beginning of a 22-5 run for Illinois, which buried Indiana for the rest of the game. While Indiana has solved some of its previous struggles with turnovers and poor rebounding, it is still susceptible to squandering good first halves against good teams. That was its downfall against Illinois, which was accentuated by poor 3-point shooting.
“That's where we got to be better, it's happened before in the past with us,” senior forward Race Thompson said at the postgame press conference. “We really got to put 40 minutes together. The game's not over at halftime.”
Illinois left Bloomington with a dominating 74-57 win. Indiana’s chance for a third-straight win against a ranked opponent was within reach, but ultimately its inability to close the game out doomed it to take its second home loss in three home games after starting 12-0 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers held junior center Kofi Cockburn to 5 points and two rebounds in the first half, with Jackson-Davis mostly on the bench, but eventually Cockburn’s 7-foot, 285-pound frame became too much for the Hoosiers’ big men to contain. The All-American hopeful put up 12 points with six rebounds in the second, finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds, two steals and a block in 35 minutes.
The Hoosiers made two 3-pointers in the first half, both by graduate student guard Parker Stewart, compared to the Illini’s four. However, the Fighting Illini got hot in the second half as the Hoosiers went ice cold, going 6 for 13 from long range in the second half while the home team went 1 for 6.
“When we've lost games, it’s been either rebounding and not defending the 3-point line,” Woodson said. “I thought we were pretty good on the boards tonight. It wasn't too bad, but the 3-point shot got away from us again tonight.”
Indiana won the battle on the boards and outrebounded Illinois 33-30, but that wasn’t enough to make up for its poor shooting in the second half. While Thompson and Johnson carried the load on offense for Indiana, combining for 25 points on 9-24 shooting, Indiana’s other three starters weren’t able to get going after halftime.
Jackson-Davis, who came into the game fifth in points per game in the Big Ten, had all 6 of his points and rebounds in the second half. After scoring 8 of Indiana’s first 19 points to give the team its early 8-point lead, Stewart didn’t score another point and went 0-2 from 3-point range in the second half.
Senior forward Miller Kopp was the most absent of all the Hoosiers, even accounting for their bench players. He made a few stops on the defensive end and finished with a steal, but the Northwestern transfer didn’t attempt a single shot in 16 minutes of play. Despite that, Kopp was the only starter with a positive plus/minus when all was said and done.
“Defensively, they know (Kopp) can shoot and they won't leave him, so it forces someone else to shoot,” Woodson said. “I thought Parker (Stewart) had some good looks in the first half and didn't make his shots in the second half.”
Indiana will have a chance to improve its 3-point shooting and put together a solid 40 minutes of play at 9 p.m. Tuesday when it takes on Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern is 11-10 this season after beating Nebraska 87-63 on Saturday.