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Indiana men’s basketball sneaks past Illinois in 71-68 win

The Hoosiers overcame lackluster play to send the Illini home Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you attended IU, you probably have a certain reaction to the mention of “Ballantine.”

That massive, plain rectangular structure in the middle of campus surrounded by aesthetically pleasing architecture around the Old Crescent like the chemistry building and the student union?

Seemingly everyone has had a class there, with the unlucky few having one at 8 in the morning. That was me every day but Friday in my sophomore year for Spanish. That slog to get up in the morning, grab coffee and a plain bagel because you forgot cream cheese, feeling like you’re moving through jell-o as you climb those horrific stairs.

That’s what the first half of this game felt like.

Indiana seemed largely disinterested on both ends of the court. Shots weren’t falling on offense and Illinois didn’t have to work through much to get to the rim or get good looks from the arc.

The worst example of this, however, was on the glass. The Hoosiers just kept letting the Illini get rebound after rebound, chance after chance to score. Illinois’ 42.9% mark from the field was aided by 10 offensive rebounds for 11 second chance points.

Then Illinois’ Matthew Mayer began to heat up. When he wasn’t finding open looks on the perimeter or taking shots in transition, he was driving to the basket for layups and a thunderous dunk. He had 16 of the Illini’s 38 first half points.

Luckily for the Hoosiers, the Illini seemed overeager at the chances they were getting and constantly missed around the rim on easy layups that would’ve made a 3-point halftime lead that much more daunting.

“I thought that they were the most aggressive team the first half, and we were just playing on our heels,” Mike Woodson said postgame. “A ball was just floating around the perimeter easily. Guys were just freelancing, beating us off the drive. It wasn’t pretty basketball the first half I didn’t think. I thought the second half, especially as the game started to get tighter, our defense started to pick up and eliminated a lot of the threes and the good looks that they had the first half.”

Everything just felt off and adjustments were necessary coming out of the half, though they weren’t readily apparent. It took just over two minutes for Indiana to find some offense as Illinois gladly extended its lead in turn.

Coming off of a loss before this game, the slumps of previous teams were fresh in the minds of all in attendance. Too often the Hoosiers have fallen apart late in the season and allowed losses to pile up. It’s too late for an extended streak, but that’s not a good way to begin a tournament run.

Those teams would’ve let this one slip away. Not this one.

Key performances down the stretch from Jalen Hood-Schifino, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Miller Kopp helped Indiana claw back into the game and eventually reclaim the lead. One final lapse, an errant pass that ended up as a deflating Coleman Hawkins dunk, didn’t stop them.

Mayer, defended primarily by Kopp, made just one of his seven attempts from the field in the second half. Woodson said Kopp got an earful at halftime about Mayer’s stat-line.

“[Mayer] got too many good looks in the first half from transition, from broken plays, and a couple of my mishaps just mentally and not being aware and really locked in,” Kopp said postgame. “[Woodson] just got into me and pretty much let me know I had to step up and be more active and aware off the ball and do my work early.”

Instead, Indiana made plays of their own with the help of the Assembly Hall crowd, which rose to its feet and got loud as Illinois’ Jayden Epps missed the first of his two free throw attempts to keep Illinois at a 1-point deficit.

With those final seconds and the Illini pressing, the ball switched hands from Hood-Schifino to Trey Galloway until finding those of Jackson-Davis on the other end, who slammed it into the rim to all but bring the house down at the hall.

It’s good that Indiana came back from a lackluster first half, but the Hoosiers can’t afford to keep putting themselves in a position to do so. Plenty of tape to watch heading into the home stretch.