CHAMPAIGN – To remember a game this big, you have to go back to when the venue they call home was named Assembly Hall.
It’s been a bit since Illinois was high enough in the rankings and Big Ten standings that a game against a formidable visitor would garner major attention. But after a few years of building a program, Brad Underwood’s team finally had that chance on Friday night.
Tied for the lead in the Big Ten conference, the 20th-ranked Illini welcomed in co-leader Maryland to Champaign for a showdown that would put one atop the throne alone for a least a few days. The game was sellout, orange was everywhere, and it felt like the good old days of Illinois basketball’s past that have been gone for the better part of a decade.
It was a State Farm Center moment to start February, but unfortunately, the hosts couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Despite a fast start, Illinois stumbled at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second against the Terrapins. The 20-4 run in that stretch gave Maryland a lead they would not relinquish despite a few Illini rallies, as they leave Champaign with a 75-66 victory. The result is deflating for Underwood’s team, who has now lost two-in-a-row in the conference and sits tied for second with Michigan State.
They’ll be at the State Farm Center on Tuesday evening for another major contest for the Illini, and maybe they can make their start last a full 40 minutes this time.
Perhaps feeding off the surge of the crowd, the Illini dominated the better part of the first half, building as much as a 14-point lead and still holding an advantage of eight after a pair of Ayo Dosunmu (team-high 16 points) free throws with 2:12 to go in the half. That’s when Maryland made their run, with Aaron Higgins’ three-pointer cutting the lead to two before the break.
Then Illinois went cold to start the second half, failing to hit a shot in the field for the first eight minutes, and allowing the Terrapins to go on a 13-2 run. The Illini would climb back into at times, getting as close as one with eight minutes to go and then five with 1:34 to play, but Maryland had an answer every time.
Four players would score in double figures for the visitors, including a game-high 20 from Anthony Cowan Jr., as the Terrapins shot 46.4 percent from the floor compared to the Illini’s 36.1.
All factors led to a disappointing loss on a night which Illinois fans had been waiting for a while for in Champaign.