CHAMPAIGN – Sometimes they look like the best team in the country and others they look out of sync.
Sometimes this happens over the stretch of a few games, but lately it’s been happening for Illinois during games. It’s been for the best, like against Northwestern earlier in the month, when they rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to win by ten in Evanston.
But the erratic up-and-downs have caught up to the Illini in their last two games. An inconsistent performance led to an upset home loss to Maryland and they repeated the same formula as the game against the Wildcats.
This time a 15-point halftime deficit against Ohio State was too much to overcome, as a second half comeback fell short in an 87-81 loss at the State Farm Center. The 21st-ranked Buckeyes handed the 14th-ranked Illini their second-straight loss, dropping their conference record to 5-3.
Uneven play is beginning to get to head coach Brad Underwood, who has watched a promising season hit a bit of a rut in mid-January.
“We have to quit riding the emotional roller coaster that is this team right now,” said Underwood. “It’s frustrating. I wish I had the exact answer. We’re gonna have some very tough meetings. We’ve got to get this figured out. We’re excellent. We’re one of the best teams in the country when we play, and when we don’t; It’s time to put a stop to the ‘Don’ts.'”
E.J. Liddell made it more of the latter for Illinois in the first half as the Buckeyes hot shooting, especially from the outside. They started the game on a 10-2 run then had a 15-0 run to get that halftime lead, with Liddell leading the charge in a 26-point effort on 10-of-16 shooting including four three-pointers.
Illinois would slowly cut into the lead in the second half with Ayo Dosunmu scoring the bulk of his 22 points in the second half. Adam Miller’s three-pointer would get the lead down to two, and it appeared Duane Washington Jr. stepped out of bounds on the subsequent out of bounds play.
Instead, the Illini were whistled for the foul, and Ohio State hit their free throws to seal the victory.
As the team looks to find their rhythm again and put a stop to their roller coaster ways, the freshman Miller had a way his team could start out doing that when they face Penn State on Tuesday.
“I feel like the team last year, even though I wasn’t on the team last year, they were the hunters, and this year we’re the hunted,” said Miller. “Knowing we’ve got the ‘X’ on our back, knowing the situation’s flipped. We’ve just got to come out the same way; fearless we’ve got to come out hard and I know we can do it.”
Underwood expected them to be that way this season, and the roller coaster is none to his liking.