Indiana closes strong on road to overcome Illinois
The Hoosiers, Indiana coach Tom Crean believes, are turning into closers.
Indiana closed out a pair of tough wins over the past week at home over first Ohio State and then Penn State.
But on Sunday they weathered a storm on the road, falling behind early before pulling out a late win over Illinois, 80-74.
"The Ohio State game, the way we closed that, the Penn State game, the last two possessions," Crean said. "Bottom line is they’re growing up because there was such a good togetherness on both ends of the court."
Indiana (14-4, 4-1 Big Ten) won a game of runs, using 21 points each from James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams.
The key for Indiana, Williams said, was keeping its cool even as the points piled up for Illinois.
"You can’t stop communicating," he said. "Whenever you can grab momentum, you just grab it."
Williams grabbed that edge for good Sunday with a put-back off a missed layup by Yogi Ferrell, putting the Hoosiers up for good, 72-71 with 1:24 to play.
Illinois (12-7, 2-4) just came up one run short, Illini coach John Groce said.
"We had great attitude, great leadership. It wasn’t any of those things but it was just a high-level game," he said. "They made the last run, we didn’t have a chance to make the last run.
Williams led the Hoosiers on the boards with nine rebounds.
Kendrick Nunn led Illinois with a game-high 24 points and Ahmad Starks added a season-high 19.
Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu fouled out with 3:42 left in what was a quiet game for the 6-11 center. He didn’t score, took just one shot and had two rebounds in 27 minutes.
The Illini played Indiana’s game early, gunning 3-pointers, and it worked. Nunn had three early 3-pointers to drive Illinois to an 11-2 lead.
But Indiana weathered that hot start.
The Hoosiers went on a 14-2 run from there, taking their first lead at 17-16 with 11:31 left in the half on a 3-pointer by Nick Zeisloft.
Both teams had multiple, long runs of dominance, and it was the last one by Indiana that decided the game.
Malcolm Hill gave the Illini a 67-63 lead with 6:37 to play. With the sellout crowd roaring, the Illini had the momentum, too.
But Williams hit a short jumper with 5:22 to play, quieting the crowd and keying the decisive 17-7 Hoosier run.
Indiana: Indiana has struggled in Champaign for years. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Hoosiers had lost 11 of their last 12 and five straight at Illinois, dating back to February 2000.
Illinois: Illinois came through a brutal opening Big Ten stretch 2-4. That included four of their first five games on the road and two against Top 25 teams, a loss at Ohio State and a win at home over Maryland. No Big Ten team has opened with so many games away from home since the Buckeyes in 2009-10.
Indiana relies heavily on the 3-pointer, coming into the game with a Big Ten-best 146 made this season. But both teams let 3s fly Sunday.
The Hoosiers were 11-25, with Blackmon 4-6 and Zeisloft 3-5.
Illinois wasn’t shy from long range, either. The Illini were a strong 12-27 from 3-point range (44.4 percent). Nunn was 6-10 and Starks 5-8.
"Our 3-point defense was really bad," Williams said.
In some ways Yogi Ferrell had a quiet game — seven points and three rebounds. But the Indiana guard had nine assists and, just as important to Crean, was the leader his young team needs.
Barely four minutes into the game the Hoosiers were down 11-2. Coming out of a timeout, the clearly frustrated Ferrell charged onto the court and yelled at his teammates lagging behind him to get back on the court. "Let’s go," he shouted, waving his arms.
"His command presence has got to be huge," Crean said.