SOUTH BEND, IND. — Illinois couldn’t have drawn it up any better in the closing moments of Tuesday night’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge showdown with Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish didn’t appear too intent on closing out the nonconference men’s basketball game with a late lead.
Missed free throws — a bunch of them — left the door open for the Illini. Trent Frazier tried to squeeze right through.
And for the second time in five games, Illinois’ sophomore guard and go-to option in late-game situations nearly delivered. Nearly being the operative word.
Frazier’s 25-footer rimmed out at the buzzer, putting an abrupt end to another Illini comeback attempt and giving Notre Dame a 76-74 victory. The loss was Illinois’ fifth of the month — the most in November by any Illini team ever — and the 2-5 start matches the worst since Harv Schmidt’s first year as coach in 1967-68.
“We had that same shot or close to it against Gonzaga,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I told Trent to keep shooting it. I hugged him and told him I loved him. Our time’s coming when those are going to go in.”
It just wasn’t Tuesday night in front of 8,053 fans at the Joyce Center. Illinois’ furious comeback attempt late in the second half was the product of how the Illini started the final 20 minutes of play. A one-point halftime lead for the Illini evaporated quickly as a combination of their own missed shots — 13 straight at one point — and Notre Dame’s renewed ability to get to the rim and the free throw line saw the Irish build a 13-point lead with just more than 6 minutes to play.
“We have to limit that,” Illinois senior guard Aaron Jordan said. “If we don’t have that 6 minute drought, the game’s not even close. It doesn’t even come down to a last-minute shot.”
Jordan said he kept stressing “attitude” to his teammates in the second half. Even though Notre Dame had started to pull away, Jordan, who scored a career-high 23 points, still had faith in his team.
“Ten points in 3 minutes for us or eight points in 3 minutes for us?” Jordan said. “That’s nothing.”
While the game was ultimately just out of the Illini’s grasp, Underwood was remarkably positive afterward with the growth he felt his team had made in those 40 minutes. The Illini players were, too.
“Obviously everybody is down because we lost the game,” freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. “I felt personally — I’m not talking for other players — but we became a closer team. We became more of a team (Tuesday) night. That’s a step in the right direction.”