CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Brad Underwood blamed himself for Monday’s performance against Miami as the Fighting Illini suffered a 81-79 loss to the Hurricanes in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the State Farm Center.
“I did a very poor job getting our guys ready. And that can’t happen,’’ said Underwood. “There is no excuse for that.’’
He wasn’t the only one accepting the blame for a first half in which Miami built a 27-point lead (45-18).
“We didn’t come ready as we should into shootaround or practice,’’ said Illinois sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili. “We were not as focus as we should have been, not as dialed in and didn’t go as hard as we can.
“That is on our part, as players. We have to come ready everyday. As we say, be every day guys.’’
But, even with a terrible first half in which Illinois (6-2) turned the ball over 10 times, leading to 17 points for Miami (5-3), the Illini found a way in the final 20 minutes to get within one point (80-79) with 15 seconds left in the contest.
“I’m really proud of the fight, down 27 and have the ball with a chance to win the game,’’ said Underwood. “I’m extremely proud of that competitive spirit.’’
Illinois sophomore Ayo Dosunmu, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting, drove to the basket. He wasn’t able to get a shot to the basket and Miami guard Chris Lykes, who tied his career-high with 28 points, drew a charging call on Dosunmu with 2.7 seconds left.
“Lykes, as he was on the offensive end, made the defensive play,’’ said Underwood, who used all of his timeouts in the first half but claimed that he wouldn’t have used one in that situation regardless. “We know what to run in the last 10 seconds. I don’t want to call a timeout and face a changing defense.
“Put the ball in one of your best players hands and try to get the rim and/or make a play. We would have loved to get it on the rim.’’
Not only was it a great defensive play by Lykes, but it was also a very gutsy play as he had four fouls.
“He actually drew what he was hoping was going to be called a charge and it ended up being his fourth foul,’’ said Miami coach Jim Larranga about a play with more than 12 minutes to go in the contest. “It was kind of a dangerous play, but with 2.5 seconds, he stepped up and made a huge defensive play for us.’’
Underwood admitted it would have been the biggest comeback in school history, and while he was pleased with that, he was still very disappointed about all the things his team did wrong in the first 20 minutes.
“It was great to see that we have a locker room full of guys with pride,’’ he said. “It didn’t matter what we ran in the first half ... we just turned it over. It’s really frustrating as a coach. We dribbled off our foot, we threw it to them. That is the mental part that we thought we had gotten by.
“When we quit turning it over, we could actually run something.’’
And while Illinois was committing 10 first-half turnovers, Miami was burying shot after shot on its end.
Lykes made 7-of-9 shots and had 18 points at halftime and the Hurricanes shot 66.7 percent from the field as they built a 50-31 halftime advantage.
“Our guys came out with great effort and great execution of the game plan,’’ said Larranaga. “Played very good defense and we were on fire on offense.’’
So, what changed at halftime?
“Our energy,’’ said Illinois senior guard Andres Feliz. “You saw that we were fired up, but you, obviously, cannot win a game by going down 27 in the first half.
“I think we should have started with that energy from the beginning.’’
And why didn’t Illinois start the game that way?
“We were not very good in shootaround,’’ Underwood said. “We were as poor today in shootaround as we have had in my time here. We were not good in practice the couple days coming up, we got away from just getting after it.
“I structured a couple really bad practices and it wasn’t enough effort stuff to sustain every day the way we have to play to win. I’m mad at myself. But guys have to fight with the pride.’’
There were a couple of bright spots for Illinois.
Freshman Kofi Cockburn had a team-high 23 points on 8-of-8 shooting. Junior guard Trent Frazier had 14 points and was 4-of-5 from 3-point range and Da’Monte Williams finished with 8 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench.