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John Groce

Illinois coach John Groce is pointing toward improved defensive play entering Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Ohio State. 

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lost in the postgame disappointment of the University of Illinois’ overtime setback at Michigan on Tuesday was that for nearly 30 minutes, it may have been the team’s best performance of the season.

Not lost, however, is that Illinois fumbled a double-digit second-half lead, failed to cool off Michigan’s hot shooter and missed out on a very good opportunity to steal a Big Ten Conference victory on the road.

Once the team returned from Ann Arbor, Mich., a review of the game film was a reminder that Illinois continues to have trouble closing the door in close games.

“We were disappointed that we didn’t finish, in particular with our defense,” Illini coach John Groce said Friday as Illinois (10-4, 0-1) prepared for another road challenge at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at No. 20 Ohio State (11-3, 0-1). “That’s been too much of a common thing for us.”

It’s a significant concern because Big Ten play is traditionally filled with games decided in the final minutes. Groce doesn’t want his team becoming uptight late in close games, but he has addressed the issue.

“We have to guard better,” Groce said. “Our guys know it and there’s no denying it. Michigan was scoring two points per possession over the last eight minutes of the game and we have to do better than that.

“Part of it is that we have to step up and make some plays on the other end, as well. And the one kid making all the shots (Aubrey Dawkins) … he’d made two 3s all season and he hits 6 of 7. Will he do that again this year? I don’t know, but it happened. It’s a one-game deal, but we have no excuses. We have to find a way to defend better than that.”

Illinois is dealing with a difficult schedule early in Big Ten play. Four of the first five conference games are on the road, which presents the possibility for a losing streak to begin league play.

The downfall of last year’s team was an eight-game Big Ten losing streak that derailed NCAA Tournament hopes. Groce believes this team is better suited to prevent that type of a skid.

“We have 11 guys returning and they have seen the tough side of college basketball,” Groce said. “I expect them to be able to handle it.

“The Navy SEAL guy who works with our team says your previous experience helps prepare you for your next experience. So we should be pretty prepared. We’re older and we’ve been through some things.”

Ohio State is coming off its own disappointment. Like Illinois, the Buckeyes lost their conference opener but their loss stung more because it was at home. Iowa led start to finish, scored 17 points in the game’s first four minutes and beat Ohio State, 71-65.

Ohio State starts three seniors, but 6-7 wing D’Angelo Russell is the highest scoring freshman in the country at 17.4 points per game. University High School graduate Keita Bates-Diop, also a 6-7 freshman, is averaging 13.7 minutes and 5.3 points per game for the Buckeyes.

 

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Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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