Smile Politely

What. A. Game.

Oh my.

Apparently all you need to get an Illini team going is to injure the star player (e.g., Wes Lunt, Rayvonte Rice) because these guys turned up against #11 Maryland on Wednesday night. Malcolm Hill got the memo that he had to be that dude for Illinois and scored 28 to lead his team to a 64-57 victory.

As good as Hill was, though, this win was created through great defensive play. Illinois’s (11-5, 1-2) hustle and active hands helped them keep the game close at halftime, 26-28, sparked the team’s 20-3 run in the first 8 minutes of the second half, and then sealed the win when field goals weren’t falling. They bested the 10th best rebounding team in the nation, 36-33, held each of the team’s three best shooters in check, and limited the Terps (14-2, 2-1), who were averaging more than 25 free throws per game, to just 18 shots from the charity stripe.

In other words: Illinois played defense like it hasn’t all season. And it paid off.

This is why people (myself included) love John Groce. He coached the hell out of this game.

After losing Rice on Tuesday, it seemed like Illinois needed a miracle, or at least some incredible teamwork. Groce made some changes, starting Jaylon Tate for the first time in his career and reinserting Aaron Cosby into the lineup. His changes worked wonders, as Tate scored 10 and dished out 4 assists to just 1 turnover.

Tactically, Groce also worked wonders by mixing up defenses through the opening minutes, keeping Maryland off balance. When it was clear that zone defense was neutralizing the threat of Melo Trimble, one of the nation’s best freshmen, Groce rode with it and his team executed it perfectly. At times, Illinois’s zone just looked flat out impenetrable, and it frustrated the ever-loving shit out of Terps’ coach Mark Turgeon (who has quite the potty mouth, I can report).

Groce also got his team to slow down the game, forcing Maryland to play the way the Illini have to without Rice in the lineup. And, after talking up the possibility of playing a big lineup with Egwu and Maverick Morgan on the floor together, he played his smallest lineup more frequently, putting 5’9” Ahmad Starks on the floor with Tate, running 2 point guards at once.

Of course, the Illini players did the actual winning of this game; Groce doesn’t get all the credit. Egwu, in particular, was a leader on Wednesday. He scored 11, grabbed 9 boards, and had 4 blocks. It was what he had to do as a team captain; it was galvanizing.

In total, this was just a masterful game from the Illini. It was exactly what they needed after the gut punch loss of Rice after two miserable Big Ten defeats. Over at Illini Board, Robert applied Bill Simmons’ “Patrick Ewing theory” to the Illini situation and basically predicted this win. I hope he was correct about more than just this Maryland game, because what Illinois did to Maryland was really, really fun to watch. I could stand to see a few more games like that.

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