Illinois overcomes challenges of Big Ten Tournament

INDIANAPOLIS – He called it a fresh start. After an often challenging season at the University of Illinois, that’s how John Groce, coach of the Fighting Illini, defined the step that began this week. “Sometimes I think we can overcomplicate things,” Groce said. “And I wanted to really simplify it for these guys. All we have talked about, literally…is to play the right way on offense and to play ridiculously hard and compete, because that’s what we do at Illinois. You have an ‘I’ on your chest, you compete.”

The 12th-seeded Fighting Illini earned some validation for another day with a 68-66 victory over No. 5 Iowa that sends Illinois into the quarterfinal round.

Illinois (15-18) will meet No. 4 Purdue in the second game of the Friday afternoon quarterfinal doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. No. 5 Iowa (21-10) must find a way to reverse a stretch of six defeats in the last eight games. The Hawkeyes, ranked as high as third in late January, had helped Iowa earn a rare distinction. For the first time in school history, the men’s basketball and football programs were ranked third in the same season.

Now the Hawkeyes, who had once earned the possibility of gaining a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, must confront their imperfections at a point when their season will be defined.

“It’s basketball,” said Iowa junior guard Peter Jok, who led all scorers with 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting. “Everybody goes through their slumps. We just have to get out of our slump. We just have to stay positive. We can’t get too low. We just have to stay positive as a team.”

Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa’s senior forward and unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection, scored 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting.

The Iowa loss marked the third consecutive year, and the fourth in the six seasons under coach Fran McCaffery, that the Hawkeyes have lost their first game in the Big Ten tournament. When asked if there was any common thread between Thursday losses in the last three tournaments, McCaffery said, “We didn’t get off to good starts in any of those three games, and I don’t think in a tournament situation that’s a good thing.”

The Illini made 52 percent of their shots in the first half and held Iowa to 38 percent shooting in the second half. Illinois outscored Iowa in the paint (24-20), points off turnovers (19-16) and fast-break points (14-9). .

“They were playing with confidence,” McCaffery said of the Illini. “They were shooting the ball. They were moving the ball. [Our] offense didn’t really flow very well in the first half. It was pretty much Pete (Jok) and Jarrod [Uthoff] making shots.”

If one thing has remained consistent, despite Iowa’s struggles, it’s the play of Jok and Uthoff. The two have been dynamic and a key part of the Iowa team this season, with a combined average of 34.6 points per game. Jok did not score until he made a jumper with 7:10 to go in the first half. He went on to score 15 more points in the first half, helping the Hawkeyes overcome an 11-point deficit to come within two points, 37-35, at halftime.

But Illinois responded to a game-tying jumper by Jok early in the second half by building a lead of as much as 11. With 4:02 left in the game, the Fighting Illini led 63-54 after a jumper by Iowa’s Nicholas Baer. After a foul by Malcolm Hill of Illinois, Jok and Kendrick Nunn of the Illini were each charged with a technical foul.


Jok was disqualified with his fifth foul, and Iowa’s leading scorer was finished for the night.

When asked if he could describe his frustration, McCaffery said, “You have no idea how much I would like to describe my frustration. Leave it at that.”

The Hawkeyes used full court pressure to produce a 11-0 run – with Baer scoring five of the points – to tie the score, 66-66, with 1:40 to play.

The stands were erupting with excitement and Iowa fans screaming, “More pressure! We need more pressure!” But it wouldn’t be enough. Hill, the leading Illinois scorer with an average of 18.5 points, was held to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. But his jumper with 1:16 to play would become the difference.

Nunn’s steal with two seconds to play sealed the win for Illinois, crushing Iowa’s hopes of advancing in the tournament.

“I was proud of our intensity level and our effectiveness in that sense,” McCaffery said. “We were down eight, tied the game. Hill made a tough shot. You have to give him credit. He is a terrific player. Jarrod is right in his face. So you really have to give him credit there.”

For the Illini, there was a chance to earn one more unexpected challenge. “We had our ups and downs during the season,” Nunn said, “but it’s best that we play our best basketball toward the end of the season. It’s March, and March Madness is here. And we’re trying to just play our best.”

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Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images


Nebraska bests No. 6 Wisconsin,

INDIANAPOLIS — If there was any question that the Nebraska Cornhuskers were tournament-ready coming into the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, their victory over No. 6 Wisconsin, their second win in as many days, may have hushed their critics.

The 11th-seeded Huskers, who had previously won just once in the Big Ten Tournament, defeated the Badgers, 70-58, on Thursday night to advance to the quarterfinal round for the first time. Nebraska (16-17) will face Maryland on Friday night.

“I thought we played a very tough-minded, determined basketball game,” Huskers’ head coach Tim Miles said after the game. “You could see they were flying around on the defensive end, making it difficult for Wisconsin, giving up their body on the glass, rebounding well, and played with good pace on offense, too. I was really proud of them.”

As he should be. The Huskers played with aggression and were tactical in their approach, both defensively and offensively. Defensively, it was senior guard Benny Parker and junior guard Tai Webster who scrapped for the ball, forced turnovers and combined for 6 of the team’s 9 steals. When asked about the defensive intensity, Parker said, “It made a big difference because it just showed that we were the aggressor on both ends of the floor and that led to scoring and getting out in transition, which we like to do.”

Wisconsin (20-12) certainly felt the sting of those transitions. Head coach Greg Gard, who was officially given the title on March 7 after serving as interim coach, said that he was worried about Nebraska’s momentum going into the game. The Huskers had defeated Rutgers, 89-72, in the first round on Wednesday.

“Tim’s team played and beat us to every 50/50 ball, every loose ball,” Gard said. “I thought they played with great energy and I think some of it, obviously, because they played yesterday. I was concerned about that, giving them a boost, especially in that category.”

The Huskers made 46.9 of their shots and had four players finish in double figures. Senior guard Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 20 points and freshman guard Glynn Watson Jr. scored 16.

The Badgers’ defense allowed Nebraska to score on 13 of their 24 shots in the second half.

To make matters worse for the Badgers, Thursday’s meeting was Wisconsin’s first encounter with Shields this year. When these two teams met back on Feb. 10, Shields did not play due to a concussion he sustained against none other than Rutgers on Feb. 6. In the tournament game, Shields made 6 of 15 field goal attempts and shot 8-of-9 at the foul line.  Defensively, Shields towered over the Badgers offense to pull down nine defensive rebounds.

“Shavon is a difference maker in our program,” Miles said of his senior forward. “Not only on the floor, but off the floor, too, if you just look at his accolades. So his leadership, his presence really matters to the guys. So he is an excellent player for us. You can see when he started driving the baskets some, I feel sorry for the guy trying to step in his way, because he is a big physical guy going to the rim.”

Wisconsin clearly struggled to shut Shields down and did not have a plan to combat. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin’s 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the year, was visibly distraught after the game. Despite scoring a total of 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds, the freshman said he didn’t play well and didn’t do what his coach asked of him.  He wasn’t alone.

To many, it appeared that Wisconsin just wasn’t into the game as much as the Huskers were. When asked why that was, Gard said that it was his one of his concerns going into the game, “that when teams are relatively even or you see a team that maybe played the day before and then they have to play the second day versus a team that’s just playing for the first time,” the energy level can be different and how hard a team plays.

Nebraska certainly took advantage of that factor and fed off the energy the Huskers had coming from the win over Rutgers the day before. And now they are ready to move on to the next round, taking on the No. 3 Terrapins in Friday’s quarterfinals.

“I literally—and I’m not trying to glamorize March basketball, but I was so proud of these guys,” Miles said. “I looked at the clock with 35 seconds and got chills. I could feel goosebumps on my legs, because I was just so happy for these guys. I saw extreme joy, you know, [a] tough-minded group playing together, finding a way, you know, beating a ranked opponent. And I was just so happy for them.”

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Purdue advances in Big Ten Tournament

INDIANAPOLIS – Of the two teams from the state of Indiana that played in the afternoon quarterfinal doubleheader of the Big Ten tournament, Purdue became the one to advance to the semifinals. The No. 4 Boilermakers handed No. 12 Illinois an emphatic 89-58 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Five Purdue players scored in double figures as the Boilermakers made 58 percent of their shots, 48 percent beyond the 3-point line.

Sophomore 7-foot, 2-inch center Isaac Haas came off the bench to lead 13th-ranked Purdue with 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting. Hass, who leads the conference in points per 40 minutes with an average of 26.8, scored his 16 points in just 18 minutes. Senior 7-0 center A.J. Hammons, the All-Big Ten first-team member and conference defensive player of the year, scored 10 points with 8 rebounds.

“I think we’re playing well,” said sophomore guard Dakota Mathias, who scored 11 points with 4 assists. “We’re playing harder. It’s the things they stress to us every day in practice. Our offense is flowing a lot better. I think guys are being more aggressive than they were maybe in the middle of the season. Enough to be able to be in Big Ten play.”

Purdue (25-7) won its 25th game for the tenth time in school history and the fourth in the past ten years. The total of 25 Boilermaker assists was the second highest in a Big Ten tournament game, trailing the 30 assists credited to Illinois against Penn State in 2000.

In their only regular-season meeting, Illinois, which had a conference record of 5-13, handed the Boilermakers an 84-70 defeat on Jan. 10. Haas finished with just 8 points and Hammons with 10. Purdue’s record is 12-3 when Haas has scored 10 or more points. This time would be very different.

“I felt like our guys did a really good job of coming out and being ready to play,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We had a tough game in Champaign this year. And after watching tape and just kind of seeing some different things [on] how they got going, we understood it was really important for us to be able to defend. And we knew they were playing three games in three days, and we just couldn’t let them get their heads up and get going.”

Purdue took a 21-11 lead 7:59 into the game and outscored Illinois 45-25 in the first half. alone. Illinois struggled against Purdue’s size. When Hammons grabs five more rebounds, he will join Joe Barry Carroll and Terry Dischinger as the only players in Purdue history with 1,500 points and 900 rebounds, and become the first to accomplish the feat in 36 years. The Boilermakers outrebounded Illinois, 42-24, and held the Illini to 39.3 percent shooting.

Led by Haas, the Boilermakers’ bench outscored Illinois, 42-8. Going into the game, Purdue’s average of 30.9 points from its bench was second nationally behind West Virginia. Purdue’s bench has outscored the opposition in 30 of 32 games this season.

When asked about what the team needed to do to prepare for Michigan, senior guard Rapheal Davis said, “I just want to go out there and play harder. In Michigan, Michigan played harder, As I said, Michigan, they outrebounded us. The only team to do that all season. So at the end of the day, they feel as though they have some matchups that are effective. But we also got the matchups that’s effective for us. It’s one of those things, they’re going to try to spread us out with the shooters, but some of the games, you have to flip it and go inside on them.”

Davis remembered the feeling in the locker room after the 61-56 loss at Michigan on Feb. 13, the one that can be reversed on Saturday. “It was one of those feelings that you never want to have,” he said.

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Terrapins set new record in Big Ten Tournament

INDIANAPOLIS – The third-seeded Maryland Terrapins set a single-game scoring record in their 97-86 victory over Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament Friday night. But don’t be fooled by the final score. The 11-point margin did not reflect the control Maryland established for most of an evening in which the Terrapins led by as many as 25 points.

“We have so many weapons, it’s hard to guard us,” said Maryland senior Jake Layman, who led the Terrapins with 26 points. Freshman center Diamond Stone scored 23 points on 11-of-15 shooting. Junior forward Robert Carter scored 13 points. Sophomore guard Melo Trimble had 16 points with eight assists. And senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon had 10 points with six assists.

Maryland (25-7) advanced to a semifinal game against Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. Layman described the problems posed by such a versatile collection of five double-figure scorers. “We can go inside to Diamond and Rob,” he said, “kick it outside to me, Melo, or Rasheed. Our offense was great tonight. Our defense needs to be a little better though.”

Layman, who also had five rebounds and two steals, was hitting shots from deep and refused to slow down. Maryland made 20 of 28 shots – 71 percent – on the way to a 54-37 halftime lead. The Terrapins made 60 percent of their shots in the game.

“Well, I was feeling it,” Layman said. “And I said to Melo, ‘You had better run this next play for me, too.’ So, yeah.”

Maryland made 90 percent of its first-half 3-point attempts. Layman made 5 of 6 from beyond the line in the first half. The Terps couldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop. And try as they might, the Huskers just couldn’t keep up.

The Huskers (16-18) were playing for the third consecutive day and the fourth in six. Fatigue may have been a factor in their struggle. Junior guard Tai Webster, who scored 17 points, said he felt the Huskers were only as tired as they let themselves be.

“It was mostly all mental stuff,” Webster said. “Once you got out there, you don’t have time to be tired. You’re drilling, pumping, everything. Even if you are, some players might be tired, but you forget about that kind of stuff and it’s go time.”

Nebraska coach Tim Miles said he was still pleased with the way his team performed defensively compared to the last time these two teams met, a 70-65 loss on Feb. 3. Although Webster said team wasn’t fatigued, Miles disagreed.

“I thought maybe we were a little bit fatigued in the legs and emotionally, and they were hitting, clicking on all cylinders,” Miles said.

Maryland is the only team in the Big Ten with five players with a scoring average in double digits. Carter, who is just 28 points away from the 1,000-point mark, could reach that milestone in the tournament. Carter would become the fourth Terrapin on the roster to reach that mark.

The Terps had 20 assists, 14 of which came during the first half on 20 buckets. Nebraska outscored Maryland, 49-43, during the second half and with 1:38 to play the Huskers came within six points. Husker junior guard Andrew White III, Nebraska’s leading scorer in the game with 25 points, said that this tournament was a good test of the team’s togetherness.

“I think we all just wanted to send our seniors and our staff and everyone out on a good note by selling out and giving everything that we could,” White said. “When you don’t give up, it’s surprising what you can do. I think everybody got the best of their effort going towards that last end stretch, just to sell out and do everything we could to try to win the game.”

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was pleased to see the enthusiasm his team showed near the end of what has been, at times, a frustrating season. “It was good to see us play well and execute and share the ball,” Turgeon said. “That’s more important than anything. So sometimes you can play well and lose. I thought there was a couple of games down the stretch where I thought we played better and still lost, one game for sure. But it’s nice to play and win. So hopefully that will give us momentum going into tomorrow.”

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Spartans advance to Big Ten title game

INDIANAPOLIS – The winning coach had his head in his hands. When the final horn sounded and there was no more grinding left to be done, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo turned his back on his team’s celebration, faced away from the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and pressed his palms against his head so tightly that his eyes bulged and his face became distorted.

His Spartans had just defeated Maryland, 64-61, to reach the conference championship game for the sixth time in search of their fifth Big Ten tournament championship. The Spartans made just 29 percent of their second-half shots and 42 percent for the game. They had two field goals in the last 11:50. Their point total was 16 less than Michigan State’s season average.

And yet with 0.8 seconds to go and the Spartans ahead, 63-61, Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine, the national player of the year candidate who led his team with 18 points, was instructed to miss one last free throw. Valentine made it, giving Maryland’s Melo Trimble, who was held to 2-of-15 shooting and 11 points, a chance for one last unsuccessful heave.

“Well, I was laughing, if you want the truth,” Izzo said. “I said we’re supposed to miss the free throw and we make them. We’re supposed to make a lot of shots that we missed during the game. I was just thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, what a bizarre way this whole thing went.’”

The Spartans (28-5) will move on to the championship game against Purdue, which defeated Michigan in the other semifinal. Michigan State has won 12 of its last 13 games. Izzo’s record in the month of March improved to 99-42 for a winning percentage of 70.2. His teams have a record of 24-7 in the Big Ten tournament a 77.4 percentage that leads all coaches.

Michigan State won with the resourcefulness that has become a signature of the Izzo era. Maryland, the only team in the conference with five players averaging in double figures, had just two – Trimble and Robert Carter, with 18 points – that reached double figures in the game.

Maryland was held to just 18 of 54 shots, or 33.3 percent, which equaled a season-low. Spartan freshman forward Deyonta Davis blocked a layup by Maryland freshman center Diamond Stone with 29 seconds to go to preserve a 60-59 lead. “In the end, the last three minutes, they were able to make one or two more plays than we were, than we could,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. And Davis had the big block in there, which is big. Would have put us up one.”

But for the Terrapins (25-8), the defeat left them with a sense of achievement. “I think we held them to like 28 percent in the second half,” said senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. “There were a couple of loose balls where they got open shots and they scored and if it weren’t for that they probably would have a lower percentage. I definitely think we played to our potential tonight defensively. Going forward, it has to be like that every night to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Valentine said that this win against Maryland wasn’t pretty but that the team is going to learn from it. “They forced us to do some things offensively that we’re not used to doing,” he said. “They kind of took us out of our game. We kind of panicked there in the second half. And I think that was the biggest thing that we need to do and learn from. If teams give us a different look on offense and when it’s a tight game like that, we need to find a way to win. And we found a way to win.”

Michigan State has a 6-4 record against Maryland and has won three of the five meetings since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten. “Our conference is, I think, a great conference,” Sulaimon said. “Every game that we played during the conference, every game we played here in the Big Ten tournament is definitely going to prepare us for the NCAA tournament, especially a team like Michigan State. It’s a bad feeling in our stomachs right now, but I definitely think we can take a lot of positives from this and remember this feeling. Our back’s against the wall. If we lose now, our season is done.”

Turgeon said that his team had a feeling of achievement as it looks ahead to the NCAA tournament. “There’s no question, coaching staff, players, everybody involved in Maryland basketball feels really good,” he said. “Feels better than we did coming into this tournament. We wanted momentum. We wanted to beat Michigan State. We couldn’t do it today. Maybe if we get them again in a couple weeks, we’ll be good enough to beat them, but today we weren’t.”

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Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Image