CHAMPAIGN, ILL. • Illinois hoped to throw an early Super Bowl party Sunday at Assembly Hall. Thanks to the Wisconsin Badgers, the pizza was soggy and the wings were cold.
The beer and soda? Flat as could be.
Wisconsin used a 12-4 run to end the first half, then shot 56 percent from the field and attempted 31 free throws in the second half while dismissing the Illini 74-68.
For the second time in three weeks Illinois (15-8. 2-7) came up empty against Wisconsin (15-7, 6-3).
And in a league where protecting the home court goes without saying, Illinois has now lost four consecutive home games for the first time in five seasons. Illinois trailed by 15 in this one with 5:13 to play, and if not for a late rally it would have been four double-digit home losses in a row.
As in Thursday’s loss at Michigan State, defensive breakdowns paved the way. And Illini coach John Groce sounded like he’s running out of patience.
“We let (Michigan State) shoot 88 percent in the second half Thursday. We let Wisconsin shoot 56 percent in the second half tonight,” Groce said. “We let (Michigan State) shoot 32 free throws in the second half and Wisconsin shot 31.
“Unfortunately, our answer now is to foul and be undisciplined. I didn’t think our defense was very good in the second half. We have to trust one another more out there. We have to trust our system more.
“You can’t be on five different islands defensively. It’s a team game as much on the defensive end as on the offensive end. In this league, if you don’t guard you will be very ineffective. We have holes in our defense now that we need to patch.”
Against the Illini defense, a Wisconsin team that had not reached 50 points in three straight games rang up its biggest point total since also scoring 74 in its 23-point rout of Illinois on Jan. 12 in Madison, Wis.
Ben Brust made seven of 11 shots and scored 20 points to lead the Badgers. Backup center Frank Kaminsky, pressed into extra duty when starter Jared Berggren was in foul trouble, made 12 of 14 free throws and scored a career-high 19 points.
Wisconsin repeatedly got shots close to the basket, which thrilled coach Bo Ryan.
“We had so many opportunities inside,” Ryan said. “In the second half we had a couple of times when two red jerseys were fighting over the ball. I like that, though.”
Joseph Bertrand scored 16 of his 17 points for Illinois in the second half. Nnanna Egwu added 14 points and seven rebounds.
Bertrand started in place of leading scorer Brandon Paul and Groce said future lineup decisions will be largely based on defensive play in practice and in games.
“We’ll play the guys who grade out the highest defensively,” Groce said. “We’ll take a long look at it. The defensive end has got to get better.”
The job of tightening up the defense carries urgency because Illinois now braces for another showdown against a team on its way to the No. 1 ranking in the country.
No. 3 Indiana figures to rise to No. 1 this afternoon when the new rankings are released. The Hoosiers defeated top-ranked Michigan 81-73 Saturday and will jump to the top since No. 2 Kansas stumbled against Oklahoma State.
One week ago Illinois fell to Michigan on its way to the No. 1 ranking.