CHICAGO — In what is becoming a painfully familiar script, Illinois will sit down today and read a tale of mistakes at the finish that let a close basketball game go to its opponent.
Close losses to Wake Forest, Northwestern, Maryland and UNLV were supposed to teach lessons that helped the Illini flip the script on the next one.
The next one came Saturday night at the United Center. And much like the overtime loss to Maryland two weeks ago, Illinois fell far behind, roared back and then let a ghastly mistake on an in-bounds play pave the way to a 74-69 loss to New Mexico State (9-2).
But if you ask players like Te’Jon Lucas and Leron Black, who helped orchestrate the comeback that gave Illinois a chance, they’ll say the game was not lost at the end. It was lost at the beginning.
The truth is, Illinois’ positive comeback was bracketed by costly stretches.
At the start, Illinois jumped out to an 8-2 lead, then watched the Aggies run layup drills while putting together a 28-5 run that had the Illini playing uphill the rest of the night.
“We came out and scored on some early possessions but we made mistakes defensively and let them go on a big run,” said Lucas, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half. “We just can’t do that.”
Black, who missed the previous game with an elbow injury, came off the bench and scored 15 of his 17 in the second half. He, too, felt the rocky first half doomed Illinois (8-5).
“It was a lot like the Maryland game,” he said, remembering having to stage a big comeback to push that game into overtime. “We made it so tough on ourselves.”
But there was also no denying the brutally familiar mistakes that came at the end, when the game was there for the taking. And that, too, was remindful of the Maryland game.
In that one, Illinois only had to throw the ball in-bounds to nip Maryland at the end of regulation. But a reckless pass out of bounds allowed Maryland to tie the game, then win it in overtime.
This time the score was tied 69-69, and Illinois tried to in-bounds the ball with 33 seconds to go. And this time Aaron Jordan’s pass ended up being an unnecessarily difficult lob that was picked off by Jemerrio Jones and resulted in a fast break rush by AJ Harris, who scored on a drive and was fouled by Lucas with 30 seconds to play.
Harris hit the free throw and New Mexico State had the lead, 72-69.
Trent Frazier, who hit consecutive 3s that knotted the game at 65, was fouled with 23 seconds to go and he shot two free throws. But he missed on both, forcing the Illini to foul New Mexico State’s Zach Lofton.
Lofton missed the front of a one-and-one, and Underwood called timeout with 10.9 seconds to go. Frazier got a good look from 3 but missed, and two final free throws by the Aggies ended it.
“I’d like to sit up here and say I saw something new tonight,” Underwood said. “Unfortunately, it’s the same chapter and we’ve seen it before. We shot ourselves in the foot again.
“I have to do a better job. There’s no doubt about that. And the guys have to execute.
“Those are the same out-of-bounds plays I’ve been able to run for some time and they've been pretty effective. But guys have to make plays.”
Illinois trailed 38-26 at halftime before finally making its push.
It helped that Lofton, who led the Aggies with 23 points, picked up three quick fouls and went to the bench early in the second half.
New Mexico State had just one free throw by the time Illinois had scored 13 points, including a 3-pointer by Aaron Jordan that tied the game 39-39 with 14:39 to play.
A sparse crowd of just 5,696 was finally into it and stayed there the rest of the way.
But after spending seven minutes on the bench, Lofton returned and did so with a vengeance. Illinois had a 48-43 lead when he re-entered the game, and Lofton scored 10 points in the next three minutes to help put the Aggies ahead 61-56.
“We let their heroes beat us,” Underwood said. “We talked about not letting Lofton and Jones beat us and they did.” Jones finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Underwood said he has to figure out a way to get his team over the hump in these close games. He has to figure out why the same mistakes keep recurring. And he needs answers in a hurry because next up is the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri at 7 p.m., Saturday in St. Louis.