Anybody who knows me or reads this column on a regular basis knows that I am an avid Illini fan. I do almost everything I can to go to every home game and have been to a fair share of away games.
So when Illinois hosted Michigan State last Tuesday night, of course I was part of the sellout crowd. In the first half it was not a very rowdy crowd but for good reason. The Illini trailed by 17 at half and didn’t give Illini faithful a lot to cheer about.
The second half was much different. The Illini came storming back and then the crowd came alive.
What happened in the last 15 minutes of the game was probably the wildest moment I have seen at the State Farm Center. The Illini grabbed the lead before letting it slip away with six seconds to go. In that 15 minutes it was loudest game I have ever been to at Illinois, and it was so cool to experience.
I have been there when there were 10,000 people there and had nothing to cheer about. So that was awesome to see that place filled up and rocking.
But what made that night so weird was what happened next. When Michigan State took its lead with six seconds left, Illini sophomore guardAyo Dosunmo came flying down the court and was going to drive to the basket and go for the win.
Dosunmo slipped and fell, the ball went the other way and the game was over.
Even though the Illini just lost a heartbreaker, no one was worried about the game in the moments following because the Illini’s best player was lying on the floor in what looked to be like a lot of pain.
I have never been in a stadium that was that quiet before. It was almost scary how quiet it got. I think pretty much everyone in the stadium thought Ayo’s season had just ended. Thankfully that was not the case, and it came out the next day he had no structural damage in his knee.
At the time of this being published we don’t know how long Dosunmo is going to be out, but it appears it won’t be much longer.
So now Illini nation can take a deep breath and the realize the season isn’t over because the best player is out.
But the team has lost four straight at this point, and IT is likely to be five straight when you’re reading this. I, for one, am not panicking. Yes it stinks that the team is struggling, but they did something they had not done in years past and that was give themselves room to go on a slide.
The last five games of the season are rather favorable and could allow the Illini to get hot going into the Big Ten tournament.
After Tuesday’s game at Penn State, the games against Nebraska and at Northwestern are must-win games. If you win both of those you almost lock up an NCAA tournament bid.
The last three games are home to Indiana, at Ohio State and home to Iowa. The Illini have to start protecting home court again, and if that is something they do they will be 12-8 in the big ten, and that is going to land you in the top six of the conference.
That is probably good enough for at worst a seven seed in the NCAA tournament, and for a team that has not made the tournament in six years, that is cause for celebration.
So despite that wild and not very fun week, my message to Illini fans is to relax and just enjoy the rest of the season. This team is really good and is a team I believe still has a lot of wins left in the tank despite the losing streak.
You can contact Ryan Birch at Rbirch@RantoulPress.com or on twitter @RBirchRP