CHAMPAIGN — In each of the last two games, the University of Illinois men's basketball team has had the ball with less than 10 seconds left and a chance to win.
Guard Ayo Dosunmu was called for a charge in a two-point loss to Miami to spoil what would have been a 27-point comeback. On Saturday, Illinois squandered what was a 15-point second half lead before Andres Feliz turned the ball with two seconds left and fouled Maryland guard Anthony Cowan to let the No. 3-ranked Terps escape with a one-point win.
The Illini (6-3) have struggled in some late game situations for the last two seasons. Dosunmu and Trent Frazier bobbled a ball at Northwestern last year that resulted in a loss. But there were times the execution was there. Dosunmu buried Michigan State at home and Ohio State on the road with late-game 3-pointers.
Still, coach Brad Underwood has spent additional time this week on late-game situations ahead of Wednesday's home game against No. 5-ranked Michigan (8 p.m. Big Ten Network). KenPom predicts Michigan wins 71-70, meaning late-game situations will be paramount if Illinois wants to pick up a Top-10 win to snap a two-game losing streak.
“I think it’s focus," junior guard Trent Frazier said. "I think those last seconds, we just haven’t been in those moments like that in a while. Just being prepared in those moments, they don’t happen often so they’re not always in the practice plan. The biggest key for us is just focusing, being really dialed in, our spots and the places that we need to be, timing, and just making the right play."
End-of-game execution has been a point in practice, more than it has been in previous weeks, Underwood said. He said the team has been spending 30 or 40 minutes a day in practice focusing on such things. Every game is different, and the plan for the end of the game is dictated on matchups.
Against Miami, they had the ball in Dosunmu's hands going to the basket before Lykes made a big play. Against Maryland, Feliz's plan was to drive to the rim in a situation that Maryland had no fouls to give before Feliz fumbled the ball. Missed execution spoiled the plans of getting the ball on the rim or drawing a foul.
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“I think you get to a point where, you’re doing it once or twice a week and now we’re spending some time on it everyday, talking about different actions and where we want to go," Underwood said. "We talk a lot about situations, score and time, not just the action of the play. We feel like we’ve got enough in. We’ve actually added a couple things. We’ve got to be able to get Trent options and looks.
"Kofi (Cockburn) has made 16 of his last 17 free throws. We’re a little more comfortable now making him a viable option at the rim in the case of him getting fouled. We weren’t that early. We’ve spent a good amount of time on that the last couple days."
Against Maryland, Cockburn got in foul trouble and didn't play the last 3:48. Underwood told reporters after the game that his defense was in a good rhythm, and Cockburn agreed with that on Tuesday. It hurt to watch the game from the sideline, he said, but he understood he needs to avoid foul trouble for late-game situations.
“I’m a really physical player so I’ve just got to realize what’s legal and what’s not," Cockburn said. "Sometimes I make a play, which I think to myself is legal but it turns out not to be. I just have to lock in, focus on film, watch more film, do what my coaches tell me and go out and be better."
Of course, if Illinois needs to execute late against first-year coach Juwan Howard and Michigan (8-1), it means that the Illini executed early in the game — similar to what they did against the Terps on Saturday.
Illinois has to deal with Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson, who is one of the best in the Big Ten. Howard is shooting 3-pointers at nearly a 40 percent clip. Isaiah Livers has taken a big leap on the wing and big man Jon Teske will be one of Cockburn's stiffest challenges to date.
Underwood and his team feel like they're in a good place, particularly after executing the game plan against Maryland. Now they need to close.
“I think the one thing that I’ve told our team is everything we did in the Maryland game can be carried over," Underwood said. "The scouting report is different. Maryland is a different team than Michigan, but the attention to detail, the toughness. We played like a physically tough team. There were collisions at the rim. There were charges. There was skin left on the floor. There was blood on the floor. Those things can carry over."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25