CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (WDRB) -- On a Thursday night showing of Hoosiers in Champaign, No. 1-ranked Indiana got caught watching the paint dry.
All it took was the turn of a head, the failure to call out a switch, you know, a couple of those little things coaches harp on in practice when you just want to get back to the room and chill.
In a college basketball season where the No. 1 ranking is more fragile than a teenager's ego, the Indiana University basketball team relinquished it for a second time, losing a 9-point lead over the game's final 3:33 and allowing a wide-open layup as the game winner at the buzzer to fall to Illinois 74-72.
There are games you wouldn't be surprised to see the Hoosiers lose. Any of their final four road games in fact -- at Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota or Michigan. But this wasn't the time or the team or the way you expected the Hoosiers to drop one -- coughing up a 14-point lead with its own offensive miscues and defensive lapses -- and being outscored 13-2 in the final 3 1/2 minutes.
Don't discount Illinois, a team that has blown out Butler on a neutral court, Gonzaga on the road and Ohio State at home. But don't dismiss the implications of this implosion for Indiana, which came into the game poised to assert its No. 1 seed credentials after putting away Michigan in its own Assembly Hall, only to stumble out of the other Assembly Hall in a kind of bewildered haze.
It's more than just No. 1 falling for a fifth week in a row, more than just the term No. 1 perhaps being replaced with the term No One.
For IU, which was on a roll, this was a give-back. They held a 14-point lead with 12:50 to play. Then Cody Zeller left the game, replaced by Hanner Mosquera-Perea, and Illinois pounced for five straight points.
"We didn't put them away when we had opportunities; that's really the bottom line,'' IU coach Tom Crean said. "We broke some coverages. We let some old habits creep in where we over-helped instead of staying committed to the corners, and that's where they hit us.''
The problems for IU were these -- Illinois turned 14 Hoosiers turnovers into 28 points. And IU couldn't stop Illinois in the half-court in the second half, giving up 55 percent shooting from the field.
The Illini also made 5 of 13 three-pointers in the second half, and Crean said after the game that his defense was chasing too much, helping too much, and guarding too little.
"There's no question we over helped and you can't do that,'' Crean said. "That's what it came down to. There's two things that can't happen. You can't get so locked into your man that you leave someone on an island, and you can't over help.
". . . Those turnovers, there's no defense for. Our guys were ready, our guys were prepared, there was no overlooking or any of that. We just turned the ball over and didn't stay committed to what we had to do late in the game.''
The last, most costly turnover, came in the closing seconds, when Victor Oladipo went to drive the lane and lost the ball with the score tied at 72. He recovered to block an Illinois layup try with 0.9 seconds left, and all IU needed to do was play less than one second of defense, then move on to overtime.
It shouldn't have come to that, but that IU faltered when it did throws up a red flag.
With the score tied at 72 and Illinois inbounding under its own basket with nine-tenths of a second to play, Yogi Ferrell and Christian Watford were both guarding Illinois forward Tyler Griffey, who'd made a pair of big threes. Cody Zeller was near them, guarding Sam McLaurin. D.J. Richardson was just up the sideline behind them all, near midcourt.
When the play began, McLaurin moved up to set a screen near Griffey. Richardson broke toward the inbounder looking for an open three in the corner, and Watford slipped behind the screen to go with him.
Griffey simply broke straight toward the basket. Nobody went with him. Nobody called out the switch. Zeller was watching the ball. All that was left was to watch Griffey take the ball uncontested and lay it off the board for the game-winner. Zeller had turned to walk away from the play, toward the IU bench, before the ball reached the ground as time expired and the court was stormed.
"One of our standarad plays," Griffey said. "I made a simple curl cut and left two guys behind me."
"Tough way to lose," Zeller said.
Crean added, " "We had numerous opportunities to put that game away against Michigan and we didn't do it. We didn't do it again tonight."
Indiana's road to the No. 1 seed was always going to have to be traveled the hard way, given the Big Ten schedule. But the road is going to be tough enough without the Hoosiers piling on self-inflicted difficulty.
It has improved on defense. It's going to have to improve more. It shot 50 percent against Illinois. That wasn't good enough.
The Hoosiers are still a great team. But that doesn't mean they don't have to do the little things.
After the interviews, Griffey was in the Assembly Hall tunnel, asking some security guards if he could have one of the "Beat Indiana" cards that were handed to students entering the game. You forget sometimes that these guys are, at heart, just college students making memories. He wanted something to hold onto. They found him one, folded accordion style, and he thanked them.
He'll probably hang onto that forever. IU will have to let this loss go quickly, but hang on to what small but significant lessons it can.
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