Illinois is trying to snap a three-year NCAA tournament drought. And while a November loss to Winthrop probably won't be the determining factor in whether the Illini reach the Big Dance in March 2017, a November loss to Winthrop looks pretty ugly right now.
The Illini suffered an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of the visiting Winthrop Eagles on Monday night, falling 84-80 in a game that should never have reached overtime.
Illinois blew a 10-point lead with three and a half minutes to play in regulation, turning the ball over three times in the final three minutes of the second half as Winthrop closed regulation on a 10-0 run. In the extra period, a couple missed free throws buried the Illini, who couldn't erase a four-point deficit.
Things looked promising for the home team early on, with the Illini jumping out to a quick 14-2 lead, but that was sliced right down thanks to a 12-1 run by the Eagles. Illinois faced its first deficit, a slight one, around the five-minute mark of the first half and had a small four-point lead at the break.
Winthrop kept things close, but Illinois managed a pair of double-digit leads in the second half, the first coming with about 12 minutes to play, the second coming with three and a half minutes to go. That's when it all fell apart, the Eagles surging with the final 10 points of the second half to force overtime. The Illini missed three shots and turned the ball over three times in regulation's final three minutes, while the Eagles hit a pair of 3-pointers and another couple baskets, the game-tying shot coming from behind the arc with 28 seconds left.
The teams traded baskets to open overtime before Winthrop got back-to-back buckets, the second courtesy another Illinois turnover, to build a lead that was never relinquished. Michael Finke missed a pair of 3-point shots in the extra period, and Leron Black came up empty on two free-throw attempts in the final minute that would've sliced it to a two-point game.
The Eagles shot 50 percent from the field on the night, with the Illini shooting 44.1 percent. And the teams turned the ball over a whopping 22 times apiece. But Illinois' most glaring deficiency was at the free-throw line, where it was just 9-for-16, compared to the 14-for-17 performance at the stripe by Winthrop. The visitors also got a stunning 54 points from their bench, compared to just 18 from the Illini reserves. Keon Johnson was the bulk of that bench scoring for the Eagles. He had a phenomenal evening with 38 points on 15 made baskets, including four 3-pointers, to go along with six rebounds and three assists.
Illinois had four players score in double figures, but most of them required an awful lot of shots to get there. Finke led the way with 18 points, going 7-for-14 from the field and 2-for-7 from 3-point range. Tracy Abrams scored 17 points, filling the stat sheet with six assists and five rebounds. Malcolm Hill had 14 points on 4-for-17 shooting and 4-for-7 shooting from 3-point range, also grabbing nine rebounds. And Black had 10 points off the bench in his first action of the season, also hauling in four rebounds.
This was the Illini's first loss in five games. Next up is a trip to Brooklyn for a Thanksgiving date with West Virginia.