INDIANAPOLIS — Losing locker rooms in March can be among the world’s most depressing places.
All season, Illinois’ chased the goal of the NCAA tournament. Against top-seeded Michigan in Friday’s second round of the Big Ten tourney, the Illini came close to that goal. Tantalizingly close. Achingly close.
In the minutes after Tracy Abrams’ short runner fell off the rim as time expired, ending a riveting 64-63 affair, who could have blamed the Illini players if they were dejected, demoralized, devastated even? The NCAA thing isn’t happening for this 19-14 team. Illinois is one of those places — with one of those fan bases — where little else tends to matter.
But the way this team played late in the season, winning four of five Big Ten games, then beating Indiana in the tournament opener and nearly toppling Michigan, made this particular locker-room scene feel less like a funeral and more like a beginning.
What’s next? Probably the NIT. It ain’t the Big Dance, but what are you gonna do?
“We’re going to continue to fight no matter what it is,” Abrams said. “We’re going to give it our all.”
Sure, the Illini wish they could go back several weeks and shake themselves out of the funk they were in before it reached eight consecutive games of losing. Maybe if they had have won at Northwestern, or not managed to lose at home to Purdue, or closed the deal in any of several other close games, everything would be great.
“Honestly? I think the eight-game streak brought us to where we are right now,” center Nnanna Egwu said.
The Illini revival that turned a lost season interesting was crystallized during the team’s second-half comeback against Michigan. The Wolverines — 10 days removed from a 31-point victory in Champaign — led by 11 in the second half before a 10-0 run by the Illini set up a memorable finish.
It went the other team’s way, but the Illini aren’t too bummed about it.
“We’ll play with anybody in the country,” Ray Rice said. “We’ve got our identity back.”