Big Ten

Illini's housewarming party crashed in loss to Notre Dame

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Illini's housewarming party crashed in loss to Notre Dame

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.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?