Illinois' late-season surge put it on the NCAA tournament bubble. But that bubble burst in the regular-season finale Saturday in New Jersey.
The Illini led by as many as 10 in the second half, but a back-and-forth finish went the way of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Deshawn Freeman hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to dash the Illini's NCAA tournament dreams in a 62-59 decision.
Illinois had won four consecutive games and five of six entering Saturday's showdown with the Big Ten's worst team. That stretch of games quickly vaulted the Illini into a position to bring an unexpected end to a three-year NCAA tournament drought. But after Saturday's loss, a miraculous run in next week's Big Ten Tournament is most likely the only thing that can get John Groce's team into the field of 68.
The Illini trailed by three at the half after an offensively challenged first 20 minutes for both teams, but they opened the second half on a 17-4 run and built a 10-point lead. The Knights bounced back, though, with a 13-3 run to tie the game, albeit briefly, before Te'Jon Lucas banked in a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding. But an Illinois lead was again erased when Rutgers scored six straight to take a one-point lead at 55-54, only for Malcolm Hill to counter with a huge 3 to put the Illini back in front. That, though, would be the last shot the Illini made.
The two teams traded pairs of free throws, keeping Illinois ahead by a bucket with a minute left. Corey Sanders ran right to the rim out of a timeout to tie the game at 59 with a layup. Tracy Abrams attempted his own driving layup and missed at the other end, but he nearly salvaged that miss with a huge play that momentarily gave the ball back to Illinois, trying to strip the ball away from the rebounder and causing him to fall out of bounds. But a video replay overturned that call, giving the ball to Rutgers with 35 seconds left. The Knights drained 25 seconds off the clock before Freeman buried his clutch triple, and Abrams' 3-point attempt at the other end was off the mark, resulting in a Rutgers win.
Despite scoring a whopping 17 points off turnovers, Illinois struggled on the offensive end, shooting just 35.6 percent on the game — 34.4 percent in the second half — and going 8-for-25 from 3-point range. Rutgers shot 50 percent in the second half and finished with edges in rebounds, second-chance points and points in the paint.
The loss dropped the Illini to 18-13 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, locking them into the No. 9 spot in next week's Big Ten Tournament in Washington. Listed as one of the last four teams out of field in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's most recent projection, Illinois was firmly on the tournament bubble heading into Saturday's game. But it's hard to imagine the Illini still being in that conversation after an unexpected loss to the team at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
The team played so much better during this late-season run, but an off day on offense Saturday means what could have been a feel-good story about an unlikely run to the NCAA tournament will again transform into scrutiny over Groce's job status. Should the now-expected happen and the Illini are not in the field of 68, it will be four straight years under Groce without an invitation to the Big Dance.