It felt different from the moment I pulled into the parking lot. Mostly because all of the cars. I generally arrive at the same time for every game, and this time, I was a good five parking rows further back. Open the doors and there's all the people. Get to my seat in press row and there's a buzz throughout the arena. And then... that.
I just tweeted that this is the most deflated I've felt since Thanksgiving week of 2016 (loss to Winthrop at home, then two losses in New York City to West Virginia and Florida State). There was some momentum going into that season, and the Malcolm/Mav class had reached their senior years, and Tracy was back for a sixth year, and we had rolled over our first four opponents with Malcolm putting up 25 in one game and then 40 in the next. Maybe, finally, the corner was turned?
So we reset. We fire the coach and hire a new one. He guts almost the entire roster and goes with the Year Zero approach. It's ugly in the second season with a 5-14 start and we start wondering aloud whether it will be the worst season of our lifetimes. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, hope. A win over #13 Maryland. A win over #9 Michigan State. A road win over Ohio State. Hey, we have three home games against the #12, #13, and #14 teams in the conference coming up. Win those three and it's a 9-11 Big Ten record. THAT'S something to build from. Win these three and there's crazy momentum going into next season.
OK, it's not "nope". Honestly, this doesn't really change much. Those wins still happened. With Kofi on the way, if this full roster returns (besides the two seniors, obviously), there will still be a buzz going into next season. Not if we lose out, of course, but if we finish 2-2 (to finish 8-12) and then maybe win a BTT game... once the dust settles that's still a momentum-building season.
But I write as a fan (because I am a fan). I say "we blew it", not "they blew it". And I have to say, as a fan, this loss is so, so deflating. The feeling I get walking into a sold-out Assembly Hall (sorry, State Farm Center) for a Saturday afternoon game takes me back to SO. MANY. games in the past. Some of them played by the Flyin' Illini, honored on the court at halftime.
The last 12 years have been about one thing: the disappearance of that basketball program. The feeling we all had from 1983 to 2007 (yes, 25 years) disappeared, replaced with "Malcolm scored 40 the other night maybe the corner will FINALLY be turned?". Followed by -- every time -- "nope". We get our hopes up, we sell out a game... NOPE.
So for me, I have that 2016-night-game-against-North-Carolina football feeling right now. We wait and we wait and we wait and then we sell out a game because there's hope again and then NOPE. The feeling walking into that stadium that night was similar to walking in here today. Sure, it's not a big-name opponent, so it's not like the game is going to go down in history, but it's an opportunity to win at home in front of a sold out crowd and capitalize on all of the goodwill of late. You've pulled the football dozens of times over the last dozen years, Lucy, but sure, we'll buy in and sell out a game again. Just make sure you hold the football this time.
Again, this doesn't change much. This game will be forgotten. A 13-19 season turned into a 12-20 season today. Big picture, it doesn't matter much. This program will either be built on the backs of Trent, Ayo, Giorgi, and Kofi or it won't. That's not really what I'm talking about here.
I'm talking about every one of these 15,000 fans heading to their cars right now. "Fine, we'll buy in again - just don't pull the rug this time. Promise? WHY IS THE FLOOR MOVING?"
That's the hump we need to get over. That's the corner we need to turn. This was a very small hurdle (the last place team in the Big Ten coming into our house), and we tripped over it. Yes, Penn State has been playing better than "last place team" and just beat Michigan, but the point is that with a sold out crowd on a Saturday afternoon, you have to beat the last place team. You just have to. So much has been asked of us, the fans, the last ten years (from both programs). We're fighting with Rutgers and Oregon State for the "worst fan experience this decade" trophy. All the fans asked for today, by selling out the State Farm Center, was to beat the last place team on Flyin' Illini day. It's so little to ask.
+ This was a game where we needed someone else to step up. By "someone else" I mean someone not named Trent, Ayo, Giorgi, or Andres. Those four have consistently been our top four scorers during this run, and three of the four had rough games today. The shooting stats:
- Trent 4-15, 1-9 from three
- Ayo 7-15, 1-4 from three
- Giorgi 5-14, no three-point attempts
- Andres 7-11, 1-1 from three
So with that (again, Feliz was great), you need a Kipper or a Da'Monte or one of the freshmen to step up. The four main guys can't be expected to bring it every night, so you need something like what Jones did against Maryland (or Alan Griffin against Iowa State in Maui which earned him a start). We just didn't get that today (14 points total from the "other" six guys), and there's just no way to win if both of those things happen.
+ Speaking of Kofi (I mentioned Kofi above, right?), it feels like he would have made a massive difference today. That's the big difference between this season and next season (besides, you know, getting almost everyone back with a year of experience under their belt). Put a Kofi Cockburn in the paint and this game changes.
I really hope that Kofi gives us what Mike Watkins gives Penn State. Watkins only scored 10 points, but his 12 boards and 5 blocks were the difference in this game. Yes, Stevens scored 25 to lead them to a win, but Watkins was huge. We need someone to be huge.
Kofi is huge.
+ Rough moment happening in front of me right now. They set up tables on the court with all of the Flyin' Illini players and the fans lined up after the game for autographs. With selfies and "please sign these six things", the line has been going very slowly. And the allotted time is one hour before there's a reception that the players have to get to.
The clock just struck midnight, which meant that people waiting in line for an autograph for an hour had to just leave. It's an impossible situation - they can't sign autographs for four hours, so they have to cut off the line at some point. But man, imagine being a fan at this game who gets in line after that game, waits an hour, can see the players signing the autographs, keeps creeping closer, and then gets turned away when the horn sounds (like, literally - they set the clock for an hour and the horn sounded when the autograph session was over).
Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill attempted to salvage some of it, thankfully. They got up from the table and started walking down the line, signing every autograph they could. Again, there's no solution here. They can't be expected to sign autographs for hours. The clock was going to strike midnight with someone at the very front of the line. So a speed round of autographs from two of the superstars was probably the best idea. Well done.
But man, my heart just breaks for some of these fans. Standing there with their kids, promising them autographs and photos with the players and then (you know what's coming)...