DES MOINES, Iowa — They almost did it again.
Thirty minutes into Thursday’s game, the Illini found themselves in familiar territory. Turnovers aplenty and horrid shooting put Illinois in a 17-point hole midway through the second half.
However, when facing a seemingly insurmountable lead, the Illini did what they’ve done countless times this season: fight back. Led by RJ Melendez’s 10-point burst, they cut the lead down to five with just over two minutes left.
Coleman Hawkins led the fast break looking to cut it down even further, but a chase-down steal by Davonte Davis resulted in Ricky Council IV flying to the rim and extending the lead.
The play perfectly summarized the First Round matchup, as Illinois’ ferocious comeback bid was ultimately overpowered by the athletic play of Arkansas in a 73-63 loss.
Future first-round pick Nick Smith Jr. was a non-factor in the contest, but it didn’t matter. The high-flying Council IV put up 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Davis added another 16 points and four steals to lead Arkansas to the victory.
As for Illinois, no team embodies the theme of “a tale of two halves” more. Horrible first halves against Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue turned coincidence into the expectation.
The expectation was fulfilled on Thursday, as the Illini were hard to watch in the first half. However, the double-digit hole they dug was too deep to climb out of.
Brad Underwood’s team has struggled all season offensively, and the trend didn’t stop in its final game. Illinois shot 6-for-22 from beyond the arc and committed 16 turnovers.
Terrence Shannon Jr. led the team with 12 of his 20 points coming in the second half, but the big story of Thursday’s loss was Matthew Mayer.
In his previous two games, the fifth-year senior shot an abysmal 1-for-15 from three, and the theme didn’t end today. Mayer ended his final game as an Illini failing to make a field goal, recording more turnovers (three) than points (two).
Melendez and Coleman Hawkins scored 10 points apiece, but Arkansas’ aggressive and athletic play forced SIX Hawkins turnovers.
The loss was too predictable. The problem in every game before was the Illini’s inability to put 40 consistent minutes together, and they were unable to do that on the biggest stage.
This team was all over the place this season, and it couldn’t come together for a run in the tournament. Illinois will be watching the rest of this tournament from home.
Terrence Shannon Jr.: 19 points (5-10 FG, 10-13 FT)
Coleman Hawkins: 10 points (3-9 FG, 2-6 3PT), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
RJ Melendez: 10 points (4-8 FG, 2-4 3PT), 6 rebounds, 3 assists
Ty Rodgers: 6 points, 3 rebounds, 4 steals
Ricky Council IV: 18 points (3-9 FG, 11-12 FT), 10 rebounds
Davonte Davis: 16 points (7-14 FG, 2-4 3PT), 6 rebounds, 4 steals
Anthony Black: 12 points (4-12 FG), 6 rebounds, 3 steals
Makhi Mitchell: 9 points (4-5 FG), 7 rebounds, 2 blocks
Nick Smith Jr.: 8 points (2-10 FG), 2 turnovers
Perhaps a little TOO excited.
The play that put the game away.
- In the program’s 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance, Illinois is one of four Big Ten teams – and one of 19 teams nationally – to have three straight tournament berths.
- In the first half, Illinois committed the same amount of turnovers as it had made field goals (eight).
If you’re upset about Illinois, it could be worse.
You could be a Final Four contender losing to a 15-seed from the Ivy League…
— Drew Pastorek (@kerotsap) March 16, 2023
That’s all, folks.
See you in the fall!