CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Indiana turned the ball over 23 times at Illinois on Saturday. Down the stretch, the Hoosiers could barely buy a point from the field.
Yet at the end of overtime, there they were, hitting free throws and staying close.
It wasn’t enough. The Hoosiers (10-4) lost their Big Ten Conference opener to the Illini, 83-80.
But Indiana coach Tom Crean said he was proud of just how close his young team had come.
We fought, we battled. And we just didn’t get the result at the end, he said. (Even) with the turnovers and things like that, we were still where we needed to be.
But Illinois (12-2), playing in front of a loud, sometimes angry crowd, was too much. Ten months after knocking off then-No. 1 Indiana with a buzzer beater in Champaign, Ill., coach John Groce credited tight, scrappy defense for the win.
We’ve got some tough dudes. We take a lot of pride in that, Groce said. But to (Indiana’s) credit, they do, too.
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 29 points, and Tracy Abrams added 17.
Yogi Ferrell led Indiana with a game-high 30 points, and played 43 minutes, staying on the court through the overtime. Hoosiers freshman Noah Vonleh finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. But he fouled out near the end of overtime after sitting for a long stretch with four fouls.
We took him out because we knew it was going to be a long overtime, Crean said.
The game came down to free throws – some made, some misses – and the final half-minute of overtime was a wild scramble.
Jon Ekey stole a pass from Vonleh in the Indiana lane with 25 seconds to play and Illinois up 78-75. But Rice missed the free throws that resulted from the possession.
Rice fouled Will Sheehey at the other end, Sheehey sank both shots and Indiana was right back in it 78-77 with 22 seconds to play.
But on the next possession, Troy Williams fouled Nnanna Egwu, sending the 6-foot-11 center to the line.
Egwu had been cold most of the afternoon, from anywhere on the court. That included a series of misses on long jumpers. He finished the game 3 of 11 from the field, including 0 of 5 on 3-point shots.
But he sank the two free throws and gave the Illini a tiny bit of breathing room they made stick.
Illinois never trailed in the overtime and held the Hoosiers to a single field goal, a 3-pointer by Ferrell with 4 seconds to play that pulled them to within a point, 81-80.
But, forced to foul, Indiana had to hope the Illini would go cold.
Rice drew the foul, hit his final free throws and sealed the win. Rice, a Champaign native who transferred from Drake and sat out last season, said toughness and gritty defense are things Groce has preached.
Coach emphasized that from the first day, he said. Just giving the extra effort, being tough.
One play late in the first half illustrated the degree to which Rice adds to that toughness for Illinois.
Tied at 36, Indiana moved up court, settling in to look for the final shot of the half.
But Rice cut off a pass, stealing the ball and driving for a layup. Rice was fouled by a stunned-looking Sheehey and grinned big before he went to the line, hit the free throw and put Illinois back on top, 39-36 with 28 seconds left.
But, as Groce said, Indiana brought its own grit to the game.
When the Hoosiers went the other way, it was Sheehey who buried a 3-pointer for a 39-39 halftime tie.
We fought like crazy, Crean said, noting that the Illini just fought a little harder, winning loose balls and creating opportunities. That kind of hustle and effort and intensity is going to carry them a long way.