CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ housewarming party didn’t go quite as planned on Wednesday night.
The Illini opened a renovated State Farm Center to a near-full house, honoring Hall of Fame coach Lou Henson at halftime. But the game’s result didn’t match the pregame and in-game positivity, as Notre Dame crashed the party by sending Illinois to an 84-79 loss.
After a strong first half, the Illini had a 10-point lead in the opening stages of the second half. But the final 20 minutes were all Irish, as the visitors caught fire from the field, taking advantage of poor defense by the home team to shoot 57.1 percent from the field and score 51 points in the second half. And the Illini went ice cold, going 3-for-21 from the field to start the second half and finishing the period with a 35.1-percent shooting mark.
Once the Illini reached a 10-point edge, the Irish answered with seven straight, part of a 15-4 run. The game was tied at 49 with 12 and a half minutes to go, but the Irish went on a 9-0 run from there. Notre Dame built a 12-point lead with about six minutes remaining, and the lead was again nine about a minute later. Steve Vasturia’s 3-pointer inside of two minutes to play served as the dagger, stretching a seven-point lead to a 10-point lead. Notre Dame led by as many as 14 over the final minutes, with Illinois getting no closer than the final margin of five.
The Illini lost despite holding a rebounding advantage and turning the ball over just three times, a State Farm Center record. But the cold shooting in the second half coupled with poor defensive play allowed the Irish to dominate the final 20 minutes.
[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern gets road win over Virginia Tech in overtime]
“I would’ve liked to make some of those shots to start the second half,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “I thought we had some great looks in the first five minutes, and that could have maybe — we got up 10, we could’ve distanced ourselves a little bit more had we made some of those.
“But at the end of the day, you have to defend, rebound and take care of the ball. I always tell them that. … There’s going to be nights when you don’t make shots, and unfortunately tonight we were exceptional in two of the three areas. I thought rebounding, we were pretty good, and taking care of the ball, obviously, that’s great, we were fantastic. But we just didn’t guard very well.”
The atmosphere was certainly a electric one, and how could it not have been? The renovated arena featured plenty of updated amenities, but the biggest change for longtime Illini fans was the seating arrangement around the floor. The Orange Krush section has been expanded and surrounds three sides of the court, also putting students closer to the action and providing a more challenging environment for opposing teams.
The court also now bears the name of Henson, the all-time winningest coach in program history. Henson sat courtside in his famous orange blazer and was honored at halftime as more than 100 of his former players took the court behind him.
It all made for one heck of an evening, but did it affect the focus of the present-day Illini?
“They had the will to win as soon as the game started. I knew they would. Who wouldn’t in that environment?” Groce said. “I wasn’t worried about that. I was more worried about poise and composure, playing within our character, not getting caught up in all the — and I mean this in a positive way — the hoopla, which was deserved. Arena opener, coach Henson. They’re all fantastic things, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a basketball game to play.
“The first half, I thought we played really well at both ends of the floor. And then for whatever reason, we didn’t have it in the second half, and to me, that’s a focus thing.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]
Malcolm Hill finished with 19 points to lead the Illini, though 10 of those came in the game’s final 27 seconds, when things were already decided. Hill also had four steals on the night. Jalen Coleman-Lands had 14 points, hitting four 3-pointers, while Michael Finke and Kendrick Nunn each scored 13 points.
There were some ugly shooting performances, too, with Nunn going for 5-for-16 from the floor and Leron Black going 1-for-7.
Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson each scored 21 points for Notre Dame, which had three different players hit three 3-pointers.
But as ugly as Illinois’ offensive numbers looked over the final 20 minutes, it was the defense that bothered Groce the most, as it appeared a far cry from the defense the team played in two strong showings last week against UAB and Iowa State.
“At the end of the day, our defense was not good enough. It was bad in the second half,” Groce said. “I thought we made a lot of mistakes. I thought we did not defend the 3-point line very well. I’m getting tired of saying it, the guys have got to start doing it. I thought we ran in at the ball. I thought our gap help was poor. I thought we left shooters. I just didn’t think it was very good. At all.
“When you give up 50-some points (in a half) … it’s unacceptable. It’s not good enough. These guys know that.”
The Illini fell to 3-5 with the loss and have lost five of their first eight games in a season for the first time since the 1960s.
Next up is a Saturday-afternoon showdown against Western Carolina.