SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Trent Frazier got the exact shot that Brad Underwood and the rest of the University of Illinois basketball team wanted him to take.
After a Notre Dame free throw, Frazier sprinted the length of the court, where Underwood, Illinois' men's basketball coach, said he's a "ton" and stopped right above the 3-point arc and fired.
The ball went, as Underwood says, three-quarters of the way down before popping back up and out, halting an Illinois comeback attempt to allow Notre Dame to avoid punishment for making just 3 of 8 free throws in the final 30 seconds and the Irish sent Illinois home with a 76-74 loss Tuesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
It was the second time this season, the other against Gonzaga, that Frazier's 3-point attempt at the buzzer was just off the mark.
"I told Trent to keep shooting ‘em," Underwood said. "I hugged him and told him I loved him and our time is coming when those are going to go in."
It appeared everyone on the bench thought the shot was good. Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who had 22 points, fell to his knee. Illinois (2-5) was within inches of grasping a victory from the jaws of defeat.
"I was just thinking, 'This has to go in,' because we had good energy all over from the whole team," Bezhanishvili said. "We were just so close and I had a good feeling. ... It bounced two or three times and it came out. It was like a stab in your heart.
"Trent is a great player, probably our best player right now. We trust him with that shot and we'll tell him to take that shot every time. It will go in. I have a lot of trust that it will go in."
For Frazier to even have a chance to win the game, the Illini needed some luck in the form of missed Notre Dame free throws and also needed a big shot of their own, which they got.
Aaron Jordan, who led the team with 23 points, connected on a 3-pointer with seven seconds left to trim the Notre Dame lead to 75-74 before Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger made 1 of 2 free throws, setting up Frazier's 3-point attempt.
Notre Dame (6-1) led 68-56 with 5:37 left before Illinois went on an 18-8 run to close the game, but that stretch came after a lull that held the Illini scoreless for 6 minutes, 13 seconds, allowing Notre Dame to go on a 14-0 run that turned a 47-44 Illini lead into a 58-47 Notre Dame advantage. During that stretch, Illinois missed 13 consecutive shots.
“We let up on our ball pressure," Underwood said. "We controlled the first half pretty much in guarding the ball and keeping them out of the paint and handling their ball screen stuff, then we got really soft. We’ve got to grow as a team that when the ball doesn’t go in, it doesn’t affect our defense. We’re not there yet."
Second-half droughts have plagued Illinois this season. It happened in Maui against Iowa State and Xavier and again Tuesday.
"If we don’t have that six-minute drought, the game’s not even close," Jordan said. "It doesn’t even come down to a last-minute shot."
Despite the loss, another to a high-major opponent this season, there was a general feeling around the team that the Illini took a step forward, even though Ayo Dosunmu (8 points) and Frazier (6 points) didn't score in double figures.
Outside of Jordan and Bezhanishvili, who combined to shoot 16 of 28, the rest of the team shot 10 of 36, but stayed the course through Notre Dame runs that had all the makings of burying a young Illinois team in its first true road game.
“This is the first night, as crazy at it seems even with the Gonzaga game, that I felt tremendous growth about our team and really positive," Underwood said. "We made some big strides."
Maybe there was no big rallying moment that allowed Illinois to climb back into the game, but rather a sustained stretch of execution that lacked for spurts in the second half.
With 4:26 left, and Illinois trailing by 10, Jordan got called for an offensive foul and was angry. Before he could walk back to get back on defense, Bezhanishvili grabbed the back of his jersey and yanked him into a makeshift huddle near midcourt.
"I'm heated," Jordan said of being called for the foul. "But him pulling me back there was big like, 'We got it. It's on to the next play. Let's go."
Little moments like that, Jordan said, can be building blocks on the season.