CHAMPAIGN — In a season of more pitfalls than mountains, this young Illinois team is learning more and more each time they take the court.
The Fighting Illini held with the visiting Wisconsin Badgers for much of the game, but ultimately fell short, losing 72-60 on Wednesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
Illinois (5-14, 1-7) was led in scoring by freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who had a team-high 20 points on 8-14 from the field. Bezhanishvili keeps getting better with each game he plays for coach Brad Underwood and is emerging as a post threat to opposing defenses.
Besides Bezhanishvili’s strong performance, Aaron Jordan added 10 points, while Trent Frazier chipped in with nine. One bright spot for the Illini were the turnovers, as the they committed only 10 miscues on the evening. In contrast, the Badgers turned the ball over 17 times, well over their average of 9.6 turnovers per game.
Illinois struggled shooting the ball from beyond the arc, making just 4-of-21 shots from long range.
“I thought that was one of our best defensive performances of the season, but unfortunately, we didn’t take care of things on the offensive side,” said Underwood. “You have to give Wisconsin credit for them gutting out a tough win on the road.”
Wisconsin led 32-30 at the break, as D’Mitrik Trice was fouled as time expired, and connected on both free throws.
In the second half, Wisconsin found themselves in foul trouble early and often, as the Illini reached the bonus at the first media timeout of the second half and the double bonus at the 13:34 mark. For the game, Illinois shot 12-22 from the free throw line, a stat line that Underwood’s team is not familiar with.
The Illini missed several free throws down the stretch that could have cut into the deficit but left those points out there.
With the score tied at 49 apiece, Jordan missed a pair of free throws, then the Badgers went on a run that they would ride to the finish. Jordan talked about that run following the game and what that meant for the flow of the game.
“They (Wisconsin) made plays, and we didn’t,” Jordan said. “We need to make free throws, layups, etc., and if you don’t, you get the result that we got tonight.”
Underwood concurred with the poor free-throw performance, knowing that there was room for much improvement.
“You cannot miss that many free throws against a team as good as Wisconsin,” he said. “We had plenty of chances to convert down the stretch, but when you go 2 for your last 11 from the line, that is a cause for concern and really went a long way in determining the outcome of the game.”
Ethan Happ, who came into the game averaging a double-double for the Badgers, was held in check by Bezhanishvili, scoring just 9 points. Happ’s floor time was also limited by fouls, as the senior spent a good deal of game time on the bench as a result.
Wisconsin (13-6, 5-3) was led in scoring by Nate Reuvers, who scored 22 points. Reuvers also notched a double-double, picking up the slack of the rare low-scoring affair by Happ with 10 rebounds. Trice scored 16, while Khalil Iverson added 12 for the Badgers, who won the battle of the boards 38-30.
“I thought Nate grew up tonight, and in the midst of Ethan’s game, he had to,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said.
Underwood announced on Tuesday that forward Anthony Higgs is done for the season and will take a medical redshirt. Higgs, who is a freshman from Baltimore, Md., has not taken the court this season.
The Fighting Illini will return to action on Saturday, when they travel to New York City to battle the No. 13-rated Maryland Terrapins as part of Big Ten Super Saturday of basketball in the morning and hockey that night at Madison Square Garden. Maryland lost to No. 6 Michigan State 69-55 on Monday in East Lansing, Mich.
The Terrapins are 16-4 overall and 7-2 in the Big Ten.
Game time is set for 11 a.m. and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. It can also be heard on the Fighting Illini Sports Network including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.