BLOOMINGTON -- They booed. It wasn’t an Assembly Hall first and it might not be a last. Not when winnable games are lost, double-digit leads are blown and home-court advantage goes the way of Cincinnati’s Super Bowl hopes. Not when the Indiana Hoosiers, victory within their grasp, fumbled and fouled it away. Not when Illinois, on the verge of getting blown out, gutted out a victory to remain a Big Ten unbeaten.
Indiana was left with what might have been in the aftermath of Saturday night’s 66-60 loss. It is 7-8 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten. Illinois is 11-5 and 3-0.
A 15-point lead wasn’t enough. Neither was the motivation from Wednesday’s 25-point loss at Ohio State.
“We’ve got to learn to play better and play through our mistakes,” guard Jordan Hulls said.
With Illinois on the brink, trailing 57-48 with eight minutes left, IU missed jumpers, layups, hooks, tips and free throws. It missed from half court and fast break. It scored just three points the rest of the way. Illinois scored 18.
Oh, yes. The Hoosiers fouled -- 28 times to the Illini’s 17.
“We fouled a lot,” Hulls said, “and they killed us from the line.”
The Illini thrived with free throws (27-for-39) and rebounding (a 38-31 advantage) and anything shot from Mike Tisdale’s hands. The 7-1 forward scored 27 points on 7-for-11 shooting, 13-for-14 from the line.
“They were going to come after us,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “They were embarrassed the other night. Our guys were a little bit stagnant, like deer in the headlights. We were not responding to the physicality of game. We stayed close enough to give ourselves a chance. We’ve been in this spot many times before. We do keep our poise.”
That’s something IU coach Tom Crean couldn’t say. The second-half collapse -- the Hoosiers were 1-for-11 on three-pointers, 2-for-6 from the line and had just three assists against eight turnovers -- hurt like a fist to the gut.
“We have some very disappointed guys,” Crean said. “It’s a very hurting locker room. When you fight like that, it should be. That’s how you get better. That’s how you build a program.”
Maurice Creek showed up at a game for the first time since fracturing his knee cap last month. IU’s freshman guard, dressed as if to play, was on crutches from his surgery. He was in the middle of the Hoosiers pre-game dancing huddle just before tip-off and in every strategy huddle afterward.
Illinois was out of synch at the start. Guard Jeff Jordan, yes the son of former NBA superstar Michael Jordan, started ahead of veteran Demetri McCamey, who was benched for a casual practice approach. It didn’t last long, McCamey replaced him three minutes into the game.
IU rocked the Illini early. Check that. Hulls rocked them early. He had three three-pointers, a steal and a layup to boost the Hoosiers to a 19-9 lead and jack up the student-depleted crowd (students weren’t yet back from holiday break). Illinois couldn’t make layups and couldn’t avoid turnovers.
The Hoosiers built a 14-point lead behind 60-percent shooting (including 4-for-5 on three-pointers), crisp ball movement, solid rebounding and aggressive defense.
This was nothing new for Illinois, which has endured a season of early deficits. Against Clemson, it was 23 points and the Illini won. Against, Gonzaga, it was 21 points and they lost.
They trailed IU 41-28 at halftime and it would have been more if they hadn’t gone 16-for-23 on free throws to IU’s 8-for-12.
The Hoosiers scored the first basket of the second half and was on the verge of a blowout. Illinois responded with a 9-0 run to position itself for another comeback victory.
Verdell Jones’ three-point play restored some of the cushion. Jeremiah Rivers’ attack-the-basket mentality restored more. But IU turnovers prevented it from taking charge. Its shooting woes, fouls and defensive lapses ruined everything else.
Illinois capitalized behind the hot-shooting Tisdale. It tied the score at 57-57 and 59-59. Guard D.J. Richardson’s jumper gave the Illini a 61-60 lead with 1:09 left. Tisdale got free for a layup off a pick and roll to make it 63-60 with 40 seconds left.
With no outside offensive game, the Hoosiers went inside to forward Christian Watford. His shot was blocked. Illinois got the rebound and then the victory.
“They stopped making their 3s,” Weber said. “That was huge. Maybe they lost their legs a little bit. We finally got stops.”
Added Crean: “It felt like a fight out there. At times in the past we weren’t the ones fighting. This time we were. I’m not discouraged. Not at all.”