You can say what you want about the Illini this season, but it's a fact that they've been dealt an awfully tough hand. And what's also true is that despite the misfortune they've had to endure this season, they're not giving up, not rolling over, not cratering to the bottom of the Big Ten. They're fighting, competing in almost each and every game — just three of their seven conference losses have come by more than 10 points.
Illinois played 55 minutes of basketball Wednesday night in New Jersey and showed a heck of a lot of fight in pulling out a 110-101 triple-overtime win over Rutgers.
"I think for me, the thing I took from it was our resiliency," head coach John Groce said after the game.
Now, sure, there's the obvious notion of why the Illini needed three overtimes to beat what is probably the consensus worst team in the league. But remember what has transformed Illinois into its current state. Pretty much the entire season, the Illini have been without three projected starters, including their two starting big men in Mike Thorne and Leron Black and their starting senior point guard in Tracy Abrams. On top of that, Illinois was without Michael Finke on Wednesday.
Nine guys. That's how many people played and how many people Groce had at his disposal.
Fortunately, they all came to play, especially when challenged by a Rutgers team that put Illinois down by as many as 12 in the first half. But the Illini didn't stop fighting. They battled back.
Malcolm Hill had 32 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, going 17-for-20 from the free-throw line, including 10 straight makes from the stripe in overtime. Jalen Coleman-Lands had a career-high 26 points, including six makes from 3-point range. Maverick Morgan had a career-high 20 points and went 10-for-13 from the field. Kendrick Nunn had his second career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. Khalid Lewis had nine points and eight assists with just one turnover in 46 minutes of action.
“I think the thing that stands out for me is that all nine guys that played did something glaringly positive to help the game," Groce said. "Whether it’s (Jaylon) Tate making both of his free throws. Whether it’s Alex Austin going 2-for-2, being in during key defensive stops. Whether it’s Maverick Morgan going 10-for-13 from the field, being efficient. Whether it’s Hill and Nunn combing for 25 rebounds. Whether it’s Khalid Lewis 8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“I thought (D.J.) Williams and (Aaron) Jordan’s minutes — they played 24 minutes today and didn’t have a turnover. That’s huge for freshmen on the road. Williams was 3-for-5 in addition to that and I thought really had a good look in his eyes and practiced well leading up to the game. And then obviously J-Cole, 6-for-14 from 3. A lot of them were big shots and in the guts of the game. He’s a big-time shot maker, and we needed every single one of them.
"I’m happy for our guys, I’m proud of our guys, and we beat a team that fought us tooth and nail."
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]
So should Wednesday night's game really have gotten as far as it did? Maybe not. The Illini are depleted almost beyond belief, but it was still the bottom-feeding Scarlet Knights.
But pushing the competition to game's end is a trait the Illini can be proud of. They were down by double digits early on. They didn't stop battling.
It's become a trend, too. Illinois has gone past regulation in three of its last four games, getting an overtime win at Minnesota, falling at home in OT to Ohio State and beating Rutgers in three extra periods. It's the first time the Illini have played three or more overtime games in a single season in eight years.
This might not go down as a very positive season for the Illini, with a lot of that being due to injuries the team couldn't control. But there's pride to be had, and they can take pride in how they're competing.