Here’s a guest post by Josh Rosenblat, who was on hand for Oregon vs. Illinois at the United Center Saturday. Josh is part of the Inside NU team, which does a great job covering Northwestern sports. You can find more of Josh’s work here.
CHICAGO — At various points throughout Illinois’ 77-70 loss to Oregon at the United Center, the Illini seemed poised to pull away.
With just about five minutes gone in the first half, for example, Illinois was riding a 12-3 run and was up 16-7 before surrendering seven straight Oregon points to cut the lead back down to two. Then with just over four minutes left in the first half, it happened again. Illinois led by 13 points before Oregon stormed back with a 13-4 run to cut Illinois’ lead to just four at halftime.
“I thought that was a real key juncture in the game,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
There’s no doubting the talent of Illinois’ roster. Rayvonte Rice was impressive both shooting from the perimeter in rhythm and while attacking the bucket. Nnanna Egwu could be one of the most improved players in the nation with his ability to post up and step outside to hit jumpers.
And it was the strong play of Illinois’ two leaders that keyed Illini runs. But the little things – a moving screen here, a missed jumper there – allowed Oregon to climb back into the game.
Unlike some teams, Illinois isn’t able to rely on its offensive sets to manufacture points during dry spells. Groce’s sets lack a ton of creativity, but do allow for his players to take advantage of their offensive skillsets. It’s a lot of isolation, but players such as Rice and Egwu are good enough to make it pay off.
That style allows for players to take the game over. Midway through the second half, it seemed like Rice and Egwu were doing just that.
It started with a hectic offensive possession where Rice secured two offensive rebounds before eventually making a tip-in to tie the game at 55 with nine-and-a-half minutes left. He then collected a steal that he took coast-to-coast for a breakaway layup. Following a Rice free throw, Egwu hit a nice hook shot in the lane to push Illinois up 60-55 with about eight minutes remaining. It was another mini run by the Illini, but could they hold down the Ducks for good?
“When you have two good teams playing each other,” Egwu said, “they’re each going to make a run. We made ours then they made theirs.”
Oregon climbed back to take a 66-64 lead with three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second half.
“We just couldn’t finish,” Groce said.
The Illini couldn’t break Oregon’s zone defense as too much dribbling led to a number of empty possessions with seven of the team’s nine turnovers coming in the second half. No Illini player besides Rice, who finished with a game-high 29 points, and Egwu, who finished with 10, scored in double digits.
“Hitting some baskets energized us defensively,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “We did a lot of good stuff in that stretch, but it was really our activity.”
On the defensive end, Illinois couldn’t contain Oregon freshman Dillon Brooks who finished with a team-leading 24 points. The versatile forward was able to take smaller Illinois defenders in the post and also use his quickness to handle Illinois’ bigger players.
Oregon extended its lead to 71-64 with an 11-0 run before Rice hit a three to stop the bleeding with about 90 seconds left. Rice hit another one 45 seconds later to cut Oregon’s lead to just three. But it was too little too late as Oregon finished off a seven-point victory.
“It was our best game of the year,” Altman said about his team, which has lost to VCU, Michigan and Ole Miss earlier this season.
Illinois takes on Hampton, Missouri and Kennesaw State before traveling to Michigan to open Big Ten play on Dec. 30.
Oregon heads home for four more non-conference games before Pac 12 play starts against rival Oregon State on Jan. 3.