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Illini can’t close in loss vs. Ducks

Oregguard Damyean Dots(left) battles for rebound with Illinois guards Rayvonte Rice Joseph Bertr(2) first half.  |  Steve Dykes/AP

Oregon guard Damyean Dotson (left) battles for a rebound with Illinois guards Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand (2) in the first half. | Steve Dykes/AP

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Updated: January 16, 2014 7:07AM

PORTLAND, Ore. — Illinois fans are going to have to learn to love this basketball team.

Its good qualities are the kind everyone admires: effort, hustle, coachability and, most of all, a brand of all-out defense that can’t be faked.

Admires, mind you. Not goes crazy for. There will be no “Flyin’ Illini”-style nickname for this workmanlike crew.

The bad qualities? Well, they are what they are: not a lot of size, no post scoring, shooting that comes and goes and a level of assertiveness that just isn’t there yet for the five freshmen who are being baptized by fire.

The good and the bad were on display Saturday night at Oregon, where the 15th-ranked Ducks rallied for a 71-64 victory.

In all, it was an outcome Illini fans should be able to accept. The Ducks (9-0) are one of the most explosive offensive teams in the country. The Illini (9-2) imposed their style on the Ducks throughout the first half, which ended tied 32-32, and well into the second half.

“Our team has been very good defensively,” coach John Groce said.

A steal and dunk by Joseph Bertrand put the Illini ahead 54-47 with 9:10 to play. In front of an amped-up crowd at the Moda Center, they just couldn’t close the deal.

Fans of this team are going to have to get used to games like this one.

For the third time in their last four outings, the Illini had control of the game with a little over nine minutes to go before crumbling. It happened in the defeat at Georgia Tech. It happened in an unnecessarily narrow victory at home over Dartmouth.

That it happened here, where the Ducks closed on a 24-10 tear, certainly is less surprising and more acceptable. The question isn’t: Why can’t the Illini close a game? The better way to put it: Are they capable of closing enough games to have a successful season?

“We’ve just got to be mature, own up to it and do what we can to [fix] it,” junior guard Tracy Abrams said.

It will be their toughest task the rest of the way. There are some things Groce can count on from his players — scoring from Rayvonte Rice, toughness from Abrams, dirty-work plays from Jon Ekey — but he can’t ask them to be what they aren’t.

Unlike the Ducks, who had five players score in double figures, led by Joseph Young and Mike Moser with 14 apiece, the Illini don’t have a lot of balance offensively.

Rice, the only pure scorer in the starting lineup, scored 16 but struggled late as the Ducks’ defense keyed on him. Abrams also had 16 but went quiet after being the best player on the court for the first 30 minutes.

The freshmen provided little — most notably Malcolm Hill, who followed up his best outing of the season with a puzzling disappearing act. Hill played four ineffective minutes early on before Groce sat him down, and he stayed rooted to the bench the rest of the night.

“He wasn’t ready to go tonight,” Groce said sternly.

Junior center Nnanna Egwu continued to struggle. That’s partly because he has been under the weather, but the team’s inability to throw the ball into the post to Egwu — or to anyone else — is glaring.

Offensively, there’ll be more nights like this one. Defensively, the Illini have a chance to be pretty great.

That’s the formula in a nutshell, easy to love or not.

NOTE: An Illinois spokesman neither could confirm nor deny a report that football team member Donovonn Young, a running back who lost his starting job to Josh Ferguson as a junior, is planning to transfer. Young contributed little in the last seven games this season, rushing 32 times for 107 yards and no touchdowns.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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