SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.
And while it wasn’t the emotional come-from-behind victory that the Illinois team was so desperate to get, the 76-74 loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Tuesday night at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center was still a step in the right direction.
Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier had a potential game-winning 3-point shot from 25 feet seemingly go into the basket and bounce out in the final seconds.
“I thought that shot was, we will call it three-quarters of the way down,’’ Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I had a pretty good line on it and I thought it was in. We had the same shot or close to it against Gonzaga, and I told Trent to keep shooting it. I then hugged him and told him that I loved him. Our time is coming.
“Tonight is the first night, as crazy as it seems even with the Gonzaga game, I felt tremendous growth about our team. We made some big strides.’’
But, in the end, it was a 6-minute, 13-second scoring drought for the Illini (2-5) that was the difference in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
During that stretch, the Irish (6-1) scored 14 unanswered points to turn a three-point deficit (47-44) into a 58-47 lead with just over eight minutes left in the contest.
“We let up on the ball pressure,’’ said Underwood, noting their defensive struggles during that stretch. “We controlled the first half pretty much guarding the ball and keeping them out the paint. We got really soft. When the ball doesn’t go in that doesn’t affect our defense.’’
And with that soft defense, Illinois proceeded to sent Notre Dame to the free-throw line 26 times in the second half, but the Irish only converted 13 of those attempts.
It was those missed free throws in the final 30 seconds, as the Irish were 3-of-8 the charity stripe in the final 30 seconds, that allowed the Illini to have a shot at the victory.
Aaron Jordan, who finished with a game-high 23 points, buried a 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left, pulling Illinois within 75-74 as the Illini tried to overcome a 13-point deficit in the final six minutes.
“It was all about attitude, staying the course and staying positive,’’ Jordan said. “No matter what’s in front of us, we have to believe that we will overcome it.
“They were able to hit some free throws and they missed some. We were able to capitalize.’’
Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger made the second of two free throws with 5.8 seconds left, setting up the possibility of a game-winning shot for Illinois.
“Trent is a talent in the open court,’’ Underwood said. “He has the ability to stop on a dime and get his shot off.
“If he felt like he had a lane, we wanted him to get to the rim and tie the game. He thought he had a good look. That’s absolutely what we wanted.’’
Illinois freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who fouled out, thought it was in, just like the hundreds of orange-clad fans that made the trip to South Bend.
And when it popped out?
“It was like a stab to the heart,’’ he said. “Trent is a great player, probably our best player, we trust him. We want him to take the shot every time.’’
Notre Dame guard D.J. Harvey, who along with T.J Gibbs had a game-high 19 points for the Irish, was very thankful that Frazier’s shot was just off the mark.
“We didn’t play our best, but we found a way to win,’’ Harvey said. “I was glad that shot didn’t go in, because we played hard and we felt like we deserved this win.’’
Tuesday’s loss was the third one already this season for Illinois, where it had a lead in the second half.
“You let me know what chapter that is in the coaching book?’’ said Underwood when asked about finishing games. “It’s growth. We have to continue to grow and execute.’’
Frazier and Illinois freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu struggled on Tuesday night, the duo had just 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting, but Dosunmu did lead the Illini in rebounding with nine.
Sophomore Da’Monte Williams gave the Illini a boost off the bench with six points, seven rebounds and five assists.
After this very difficult stretch to open the season, Illinois will play its first Big Ten Conference game this Sunday in Lincoln, Neb., against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. It will be the fifth game out of eight away from Champaign for the Illini.
Tip off is set for 4 p.m. in Lincoln. The game can be seen on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard on the Fighting Illini Sports Network including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.