After the events in Ann Arbor this afternoon, there was never a doubt about what the focus of this post game column was going to be. The only question I had was what I was going to title it.
Ayo the Storm?
The second half of today's game against Michigan was turning into quite the grind. The recently scorching Trent Frazier was saddled with foul trouble. Kofi Cockburn appeared to be running on fumes and struggled to get anything going all game. Giorgi Bezhanishvili was a non-factor. A desperate Michigan team trying to snap a three game losing streak had seemingly seized the tenor of the game over the final five minutes. It was shaping up like so many almost winnable road games of recent vintage, and it was in danger of slipping away. Yet somehow suddenly the game was tied at 62, there were 24.6 seconds left on the clock and Illinois had the ball. Brad Underwood called timeout to set up Illinois' final possession, but we all knew where the ball was going. How exactly did we know?
Well let's revisit the last four Illini games...
@Wisconsin: Over the final four minutes Ayo Dosunmu assisted on three consecutive three point shots and then scored five points in the final 1:30 - including a dagger three of his own - as Illinois turned a late 63-56 deficit into a 71-70 win and snapping a 15 game losing streak against the Badgers in the process.
Rutgers: In a wrestling match of a basketball game at the SFC, Illinois and the Scarlet Knights were tied at 46 with 2:00 left to play. Dosunmu scored the last eight Illini points - including 6 of 6 free throws to bring the Illini home with a 54-51 victory.
Northwestern: Illinois was sleepwalking for much of the afternoon and the pesky Wildcats had trimmed a nine point Illini lead down to just three with under a minute left to play. Ayo proceeded to drill a tough pull up jumper to put Illinois back up 5 and then after another late Northwestern three pointer, he sank two more free throws with six seconds left on the clock to secure the win.
@Purdue: Illinois was in control of this game for most of the second half, but the Boilers had gained a flicker of hope by shaving the lead below double digits with 5:00 to play. Dosunmu immediately snuffed out that flame by drilling back-to-back jumpers to put the game back out of reach and send the Mackey Arena faithful to the exit rows.
So now where were we? Oh yeah - tied at 62. Dosunmu is nicknamed "Iso" for his penchant to thrive in isolation situations, so "Iso" they did. Four flat formation on the baseline and Dosunmu at the top of the floor. Give him the ball and stay out of his way. No ball screen - just Ayo against the world. Or at least against Zavier Simpson. Dosunmu crossed over, hesitated, and got to the foul line to attempt his lethal mid-range jump shot. Simpson did everything he could - his defense was in fact fantastic, but at this moment - at closing time - Dosunmu was just better. Simpson was in tight and Dosunmu used that proximity to his advantage - leveraging away from Simpson to create the tiniest sliver of space, and it was all he needed. Bang. 64-62 Illini with 0.5 seconds left.
After Michigan failed to get off a desperation heave - the Illini had their second signature road win of the week. The surging Illini now find themselves in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten conference at 7-2. Winners of three straight road games and six in a row overall. This team is doing things we haven't seen since 2005.
Life on the road in the Big Ten is always a meat grinder, but especially so this season where there have only been 12 road wins in 60 games. Illinois has 3 of those 12. In order to secure a precious road win, something out of the ordinary usually has to happen. Something special. Sometimes you can just hang around all game and put together a late run out of nowhere - like Illinois did at the Kohl Center. Sometimes you have one of those "we can't miss anything" shooting nights - like Illinois did in the second half at Mackey Arena.
And sometimes you've battled all day to get to even with just 24.6 seconds remaining on the clock and you have to put the ball in the hands of your superstar and trust him to bring you home. Yeah there was a lot of hero ball down the stretch today, but hey, if you have a hero… and I think I just found my post title.
+Ayo was everyone's headline, but Andres Feliz was gigantic today as well. He actually led the Illini in second half scoring and rebounding with 12 and 5. With Kofi and Giorgi struggling and Trent saddled with foul trouble, Illinois needed every last bit of that from the senior.
+Oh yeah - those 27 points for Ayo was also his career high.
+Only four players scored for the Illini in the second half (Feliz -12/Dosunmu-11/Cockburn- 5/Frazier- 2). Da'Monte Williams was scoreless for the seventh consecutive game. Kipper Nichols played more minutes than did Trent Frazier. Michigan only turned the ball over twice AND outrebounded Illinois 37-34. It's crazy that we pulled off this win.
+That said, another way to get a road win is to get some help from your opponent - and Michigan certainly obliged. There were, of course, those five straight missed free throws in the final three minutes, but Illinois was also the beneficiary of some questionable decision making from first year Michigan head coach Juwan Howard. After Trent Frazier tied the game at 62 with a pair of free throws, there were 51 seconds left on the clock - plenty of time for Michigan to go "2 for 1" on possessions in the final minute. But Howard elected to forego the timeout and instead watched his team slow play their final possession - one that ended with a missed shot from Jon Teske and allowed Illinois and Dosunmu to seize control of their own destiny. Somehow I doubt that would have happened were John Beilein still on the bench for Michigan.
+Robert Archibald died yesterday and that sucks. I came to know him over the past couple years as he was part of our regular pickup game group. I found him to be every bit the guy he appeared to be when I watched him play in an Illinois uniform - outgoing, affable, funny, and good hearted. I'm just beyond saddened at his passing. I can't possibly match the poignancy of IlliniBoard Robert's words, so please go read his post on Arch from this morning again - and then go hug someone. Anyone. Rest easy big fella - we'll miss you.