CHAMPAIGN — When your basketball team hasn’t won a Big Ten Conference game since March of 2017, a coach will try anything the change its luck.
So University of Illinois coach Brad Underwood broke out the flashy orange sport coat Wednesday and paired it with a purple neck tie. Maybe he thought he could scare the losses away.
Assistant coach Orlando Antigua wore his lucky bow tie. Another assistant, Chin Coleman, picked a silk tie that could be seen from the outskirts of Urbana.
Years from now someone can decide whether the sartorial splendor helped break Illinois’ spooky spell in Big Ten play, but somehow, some way the Illini held off Indiana 73-71 at State Farm Center.
It’s Illinois’ first Big Ten victory after a 0-8 start but it didn’t happen without heart palpitations and a brush with disaster. But as Illini assistant Jamall Walker said as he caught his breath after the game, “I’m not giving it back.”
Illinois won despite making just one basket in the final 11:39 minutes. Illinois won despite skirting foul trouble throughout the second half. Illiniois won despite having no interior defense for much of the game. And Illinois won despite a costly turnover and two missed free throws, both in the final seconds by Trent Frazier.
But Illinois got 19 points from both Frazier and Leron Black and for the second game in a row, Kipper Nichols impacted the game in a positive way. Nichols scored 12 points and was 7-for-7 from the free-throw line.
“I’m extremely happy for those guys in the locker room,” Underwood said. “They have persevered through some very interesting times.
“It’s part of the process. The first win had to be like that — hard.”
Indiana’s downfall came at the free-throw line where it made just 16 of 29.
Illinois trailed at the half, 38-32, and had no answer for Indiana’s Juwan Morgan, who raced unobstructed to the basket to make 6 of 7 shots.
But the Illini opened the second half on a 13-5 run to tie the game 45-45 on a free throw by Leron Black with 14:24 to go.
Illinois took a 53-51 lead on Frazier’s drive with 11:39 to go and although no one knew it at the time, Illinois would make just one more basket the rest of the way.
But it was a crucial basket in the midst of what turned out to be a free throw shooting contest.
With the shot clock melting away, Frazier drove at the basket, kicked to Te’Jon Lucas in the corner and flipped the ball to Nichols, who hit a 3-pointer to give Illinois a 69-63 lead with under two minutes to go. A pair of free throws by Illinois’ Mark Alstork made it 71-63 and that lead looked safe with just 1:20 to play.
But no lead is safe for an Illini team that has lost in just about every way possible in Big Ten play.
Indiana outscored the Illini 8-3 over the next 70 seconds to close the gap to 73-71 but as Indiana rushed for a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, an entry pass dribbled away for a game-deciding turnover with 0.1 seconds to go.
Morgan led Indiana (12-9, 5-4) with 28 points on 12-for-14 shooting. He also had eight rebounds.
Illinois is off this weekend and returns to action Tuesday night at 6 o’clock against Rutgers at the State Farm Center.