Illinois basketball was dead tonight. Twice.
Down 37-19 at half, it felt like they had no hope. The fans were booing as the team made their way to the locker room, the student section was deflated, and Boo Buie had just outscored the entire Illini squad by himself with a ridiculous 22 point half.
It felt like everything had officially come crashing down. Everything the Illini had built for the past few years- the consistency, the effort, the "Every Day Guy" mentality that Coach Underwood has preached so much. Simply put, Illinois did not show any of that in the first half. They were making lazy passes, not closing out on shooters, and had countless mental lapses.
It also appeared as though the streak of players having career nights against the Illini would continue. As mentioned, Buie had 22 and showed no signs of slowing down. Not even a ripped jersey could stop the man, as the Northwestern staff could have qualified for the Olympics with their sprint to the locker room.
The only moment that truly deserved celebrating was this vicious slam by freshman Sencire Harris:
As bad of a half as it was, that dunk got everyone out of their seats, and deservedly so.
Even after shooting a disgusting 0-11 from 3 with 10 turnovers, they still had a full 20 minutes left to right ship. As unlikely as it may have seemed, crazier things have happened in college hoops before.
Suddenly, 5 minutes in to the half, Illinois had somehow managed to make it a 4 point ball game. A few buckets from Matthew Mayer and Terrance Shannon, along with a Ty Rodgers layup had cut in to the Wildcats lead with ease.
Just like that the Illini were back in the game, and the State Farm Center was rocking. Then they fell right back in to the same hole. Boo Buie rattled off another ridiculous run, and just like that Northwestern made it a 15 point ball game again. Boom, dead again.
That was just about the last moment of joy for the Wildcats and their fans. Over the next 11 minutes, Illinois proceeded to absolutely run them out of the gym. The ensuing 27-8 run produced one of the most electric crowds I have ever experienced in my time viewing live sports.
Need I say more? I thought the roof was going to blow off.
After a sluggish first half (much like everyone on the team), Terrance Shannon Jr. absolutely took over in the second half. This was a Shannon that we have not seen since the UCLA game early in the season. Except better.
Shannon ended the night with 26, a ridiculous 24 of them in the 2nd half. During his late game explosion, he went 7-8 from the field (4-4 from three), drilling multiple massive free throws with the game on the line to put the team up 4 with just a few seconds remaining. The difference tonight though was his tenacity getting to the rim. He was completely unstoppable on the way to the basket.
Shannon was truly unconscious late in the game, and this may have been the most exciting play of all:
But the change that truly won the Illini this game was their defense on Buie. 8 minutes in to the half, Buie had upped his scoring total to 32 points. From that point on, he was nowhere to be found.
The reason for that?
The freshman checked in and proceeded to hold Buie to 3 points for the rest of the night, and once again, his energy completely changed the game.
How can you not love this dude?
This has been an absolute rollercoaster of a year for the Illini, and this game was no different. I mean shit, an 18 point comeback against one of your biggest rivals late in the season? It literally does not get better than this.
I am at the point where this team could literally make the Final Four or get 20 pieced in the first round and I would not be surprised either way.
But for this short moment in time, I just want to enjoy what was truly an unbelievable comeback, and take a breather knowing that, after tonight, the Illini will once again be dancing in March.
Cover image via Getty Images