CHAMPAIGN — With a young team and a new head coach, every Illini game will be a trip to the basketball classroom this season.
Mistakes to be made. Success to be tasted. Lessons to be learned.
Sunday night at the State Farm Center, Illinois learned how not to finish a basketball game. It was a lesson that nearly cost them the taste of success.
Illinois led Tennessee-Martin 74-58 when Michael Finke dunked the ball with 3:48 to go, but had to hang on at the buzzer to survive a 77-74 victory.
UT-M actually had two chances to tie the game.
After Leron Black missed twice from in close, UT-M won the scramble for the rebound and Matthew Butler got a good-look 3-pointer with a couple seconds to go. It missed and the rebound went out of bounds.
UT-M was awarded possession with 0.9 seconds to play. Illinois put 6-foot-9 Greg Eboigbodin into the game to guard the baseline in-bounds pass and UT-M had to heave the ball nearly to mid-court where a desperation 3-pointer fell several feet short of the basket.
Illinois nearly went dead in the water as UT-M made its comeback.
The Illini still led by 11 points after Black scored on an assist from Te’Jon Lucas with 1:53 to play. But a 3-pointer by UT-M’s Butler at the 1:36 mark cut the lead to 76-68.
After Lucas turned the ball over, Darius Thompson was fouled and hit two free throws to trim the Illini lead to 76-70 with 1:22 to go.
Another Illini turnover followed and Dominique Williams hit a pair of free throws to pull UT-M closer at 76-72 with 1:07 to go.
Lucas answered with one free throw for Illinois to make it 77-72 but a basket in the paint by Fatodd Lewis brought UT-M to within 77-74 with 43 seconds to go. Now it was a one-possession game.
Illinois went inside to Black, who had a career-high with 23 points as well as eight rebounds. But he missed, then missed again and UT-M won the battle for the rebound, setting up the final two 3-point shots.
“I think we just played scared,” Finke said of the final minutes after the Illini appeared to have a comfortable lead. “Their press got to us and we turned it over a little too much. We were not being aggressive. We held the ball and tried to waste some time.
“That’s on us. That just can’t happen.”
Finke finished with 12 points and five rebounds.
Coach Brad Underwood said he felt good at halftime after the Illini jumped to a 44-29 lead. But he worried about his team’s preparation after Friday night’s season opener.
“Today was more a mental thing,” Underwood said. “Just look at the free throws (19 of 27 after making 34 of 37 on Friday). That’s a matter of being mentally dialed in.
“Our mental approach to this game was not up to standard. We have a lot of freshmen who have got to understand how to prepare for a game and they don’t. They’ve never dealt with scouting reports before. We missed assignments and we have to grow from that.
“I’m used to having the scouting report memorized and to know every call. Tonight we got exploited.”
Mark Smith had 13 points and Aaron Jordan added 10 for the Illini (2-0).
Jordan scored just 23 points all of last season and has 27 in two games this year.
“I’m so happy for A.J.,” Underwood said. “He’s a guy who has put in so much time, so much work. He’s playing with so much confidence. He had that one rip drive where he got into the paint. He wasn’t doing that earlier.
“And five rebounds from that small forward spot (in 16 minutes) … those are big numbers. As long as he continues to put that time in, I don’t think anything happens with A.J. except his stock keeps rising.”
Delfincko Bogan, UT-M’s quick little point guard, gave Illinois fits. He finished with 23 points, six assists and seven steals. Dominique Williams added 15 points.
Illinois returns to action at 7:30 p.m. Friday when it hosts DePaul in the Gavitt Tipoff Games which pairs teams from the Big Ten and the Big East Conferences.