Illini unable to score down the stretch, lose in overtime
There's always the chance for improvement, but sooner or later it comes down to talent.
Illinois faltered down the stretch by missing free throws and piling up turnovers in a 78-72 overtime loss to No. 22 Arizona on Saturday in a non-conference basketball game at the United Center.
Coach Bruce Weber searched for answers to an offense that's just as painful to watch as last season.
"One thing we obviously need is somebody who can create,'' Weber said. "I'm not sure we have that at this point.''
The cure for that takes time.
"Get better players,'' Weber said.
Illinois fell to 5-3 overall after leading for 39 minutes 41 seconds in regulation, then fell apart because of bad offense. The Illini jumped to a 12-0 lead and led 46-34 with 13:18 left. After halftime, Illinois made two of its first 10 free throws and lost 13 turnovers. Illinois finished 10-for-22 from the line.
The loss -- and the way Illinois lost -- even reminded Weber of last season, when the Illini struggled to close games against quality competition in an agonizing display of offense. The NCAA tournament gets farther and farther away with every early-season loss.
"It's a disappointing game and a disappointing loss,'' Weber said in a somber voice. "Free throws plagued us for the last two years. We didn't hit free throws. We could have won the game, iced the game, taken control of he game. We had some breakdowns down the stretch.
"We talked about executing, finishing, doing little things. We have to find a way to do it. We got a little cautious and tentative in the gut check part of the game. We have to find somebody to make plays at the end of the game to win a close game against a good team.''
Illinois center Shaun Pruitt had a career-high 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting and nine rebounds despite a sprained ankle that forced him to wear a brace.
"I didn't expect that to be honest,'' Weber said. "He struggled in practice. He showed some courage and played like a senior.''
Even when Illinois botched the final minutes of regulation, it appeared the Illini might get a break. Illinois claimed Arizona guard Nic Wise asked for a timeout with 2 seconds left in regulation when the Wildcats were already out of timeouts.
"I saw him and I heard him,'' said Illini guard Trent Meacham. Official Kevin Mathis, standing just a few feet away from Wise, didn't make the call.
Interim Arizona coach Kevin O'Neill said his team was informed there were no timeouts.
"That would have been grounds for murder,'' O'Neill said.
A basket by Pruitt gave the Illini a 57-51 lead with 5:12 left. The lead evaporated as Illini were 1-for-4 from the field, 2-for-4 from the free-throw line and lost seven turnovers in the final minutes of regulation. On Illinois' final possession with 8 seconds left in regulation, guard Chester Frazier was stripped before the no call on the timeout by Mathis.
"The free throws were a big part of it,'' said Illini guard Calvin Brock. "Arizona executed down the stretch and made plays. We couldn't find a way to do the same thing.''
Meacham finished with 16 points and six assists. Brock had 11 points and three assists. Forward Brian Randle had with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists but also lost four turnovers. Frazier failed to score while missing four shots. He had five assists and six turnovers.
Arizona (6-2) was 11-for-14 from the free-throw line in overtime. After rallying from 20 points down for a win over then-No. 9 Texas A&M last weekend, the Wildcats survived despite off games from stars Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger.
"Our plan is not to get behind every game, but I was very proud of the way our guys played,'' O'Neill said. "It says we do have a little bit in terms of intestinal fortitude.''
Bayless scored 20 points, including six late free throws in overtime, after shooting 6-for-17 from the field. Budinger had a season-low eight points on 2-for-8 shooting. He didn't make a field goal until overtime. Budinger and Bayless entered the game with a combined average of 38.3 points per game.
Forward Jordan Hill (23 points, 14 rebounds) and Wise (11 points, eight assists) enjoyed career nights.
"You don't want to focus on the stars and let other guys go off,'' Weber said. "We did that. Don't let anybody else have a career high.''
Illinois is 31-8 all-time in the United Center. . . Illinois will play Georgia in the annual United Center game next season. . . Arizona coach Lute Olson announced late Thursday that his leave of absence would continue through the entire season.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.
Illinois report card
Front court: B
Shaun Pruitt enjoyed a career game despite a sprained ankle. Brian Randle attempted to make plays down the stretch but couldn't convert before fouling out, and Randle played a key role in shutting down Wildcats star forward Chase Budinger.
Back court: C
Trent Meacham put up respectable numbers. The play of Chester Frazier has Coach Bruce Weber in a tough place. Stick with Frazier because of his defense or give freshman Demetri McCamey a try in search of better playmaking.
If depth and numbers are a strength of the Illini, you couldn't tell it against a quality opponent. Arizona made the Illini bench look young, weak or inexperienced. Or all of the above.
All the good work in the game's first 35 minutes was wasted by bad offense down the stretch of regulation and overtime. By losing to Maryland and Arizona -- games that were there for the taking -- Illinois' chances of reaching the NCAA tournament get slimmer and slimmer.