CHAMPAIGN – It just couldn’t be easy, right?
For once in a so far tortured Big Ten season, Illinois just couldn’t coast to what should have been a slightly comfortable victory on Wednesday night. Certainly it made for more stress in an already trying season for first year head coach Brad Underwood.
Still, it’s a victory. In Champaign, for right now, that’s enough.
An eight point lead did evaporate in the final 56 seconds, but the Illini had one defensive play in them in the final seconds to get a 73-71 victory over Indiana Wednesday night at the State Farm Center. After eight-straight losses to open the conference season, it’s finally a chance for Underwood to enjoy a successful outing in the Big Ten.
“That was interesting, wasn’t it,” said a smiling Underwood, wearing his orange jacket at his news conference following the game.
Maybe that’s letting off a bit of steam after a successful second half which had a nearly disastrous ending. Behind Leron Black and Trent Frazier, who each scored 19 points, Illinois erased a six-point halftime deficit and grabbed an eight-point advantage on a pair of Te’jon Lucas free throws with 56 seconds to go. Then it started to go awry, with turnovers and missed free throws helping the Hoosiers to climb within two with eight seconds left.
Frazier then missed a pair from the charity stripe, giving Indiana a shot at a tie or even a win. Devonte Green was able to get down the floor and into the lane quickly, but an errant bounce pass ended up in the hands of Mark Alstork with .1 left on the clock. Even he missed two free throws, and then when the ball bounced off the rim, he approached Juwan Morgan and came close to contact as the clock expired.
That earned a quick yet animated discussion with Underwood, but nevertheless a victory.
It’s been a long time coming for the Illini, who picked up their first win since December 30th and their first conference victory since last March. There have been a couple of close calls in that time but never a “W” and never has it been easy.
“Obviously I’m extremely happy for those guys in the locker room,” said Underwood. “They persevered through some very, very interesting times. It’s part of the process. I think the first one had to be like that.”
Of course it did.