EVANSTON, Ill. • The game was there to be put away, begging for the Illini to close the door for good on their second-half misfires and nab a conference win.
Instead, the missed opportunities added up, and Northwestern’s A.J. Turner — a 29 percent 3-point shooter — hit one to hand Illinois a 68-66 loss Sunday at the recently renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
For Illinois, it was another example of the late-game malfunctions that have haunted the team all season long. The Illini have led, been tied or trailed by two with the ball in 10 of their 11 losses this year.
“I’ve done this 31 years and you see it all,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You lose some of these games, but eventually they come back to you. We’ve got a hurting locker room. There are a lot of tears in that locker room. As a coach, you feel for them and yet you walk away from them and you’re excited because it hurts when you’re playing the right way.”
Illinois (4-11, 0-4 in the Big Ten) had a one-point lead and a chance to extend the advantage with less than a minute left. The Illini broke a time-out huddle with 19 seconds on the shot clock and couldn’t get a shot up, committing a shot-clock violation. It was the lone shot-clock violation of the game after they committed five in Thursday’s loss to No. 21 Indiana. The ball went between freshman Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier, then inside to Kipper Nichols, who kicked it back to Frazier as the clock expired.
On the other end, Turner, who had 12 points, missed a 3-point attempt from the top of the arc, but Dererk Pardon procured the offensive rebound, his eighth board, and kicked it back out to Turner, who made the shot with 11 seconds left.
With seven seconds to go, after a timeout, Illinois’ Frazier and Dosunmu bobbled an exchange that Frazier ended up with. His shot hit the back of the rim as time expired.
Dosunmu called it a great shot by a great player that just didn’t fall.
Dosunmu, though, turned in another marquee performance with an 18-point, five-rebound effort to lead the team in scoring for the third consecutive game. When the Illini needed a big play, he delivered. Dosunmu tied the score or gave Illinois a lead four times in the second half.
But the losses sting.
“We all want to win,” Dosunmu said. “That’s the goal: To win. When you’re right there, when you come up short, it hurts. Me being competitive, the team being as competitive as they are, it hurts. It’s like a big hole right through your chest.
“Of course it hurts right now. Look at my face,” he added with a somber expression.
The Illini led 31-25 at halftime before the Wildcats (10-5, 1-3) connected on three straight 3-pointers to tie the score at 42-all with 13:03 left to play. After that, no lead was greater than four points the rest of the way.
Illinois’ offense operated differently Sunday from recent games. The Illini were 0 for 11 from 3-point land, the first time the team didn’t make a 3-pointer since Nov. 29, 2008 in a 48-44 win over Tulsa.
The Illini had been 35 of 120 from 3-point range in their previous four games combined.
Rather than doing damage from deep, the Illini went into the lane over and over, scoring 42 points inside and 22 points from the free-throw line. Graduate transfer big man Adonis De La Rosa had 12 points and three rebounds, and freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili had eight points.
“I liked the balance that we played with tonight, and I thought our half-court execution for the most part was pretty good,” Underwood said.
Sophomore Da’Monte Williams had 10 points, with eight coming from the free throw line.
“This is a tough process,” Williams said. “It breaks a lot of people, but it isn’t going to break us. We’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to stay together.”
On Thursday, the gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule continues with the Illini hosting No. 2 Michigan, their first conference home game of the season. It’s par for the course for a team that has played the eighth-toughest schedule in the country, according to KenPom.com, and the second-hardest of any team in one of the six major conferences, behind only Oklahoma.
“I challenge anybody to go play our schedule and play five home games,” Underwood said. “These kids are bought in now. They’re fighting their tail off. They’re becoming closer through all of this, and that’s exciting. It makes it a challenge, and yet it makes it really, really fun.”
If there were any bit of good news from a Sunday afternoon that ended in another painful loss, it was that Underwood nabbed another five-star recruit, getting an oral commitment from 6-11 center Kofi Cockburn.