Six seconds remain now and this one's tied up at 56 and, on the line, Illinois forward Myke Henry is settling himself for a pair of free throws. He has taken only two of these all season, making one, but here he offers up his first attempt and it rattles around and finally falls through. Then, at the far end of the court, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody calls time and in the huddle draws up what will come next. If Henry makes the second, he decides, the ball will be inbounded to point Dave Sobolewski and he will push it and look for an open shooter. If Henry misses the second, he goes on, the task of pushing will fall on the rebounder. But certainly, in neither case, will he call another timeout. "I wanted," he will explain, "to get going and cause some confusion."
Now Henry is back at the line and he offers up his second attempt and it rims out and is corralled by 'Cat forward Drew Crawford, who whirls quickly and takes off up the court. "Coach," he will later say, "just wanted us to push it."
This was Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the latest installation of the 'Cat-Illini rivalry unfolded in a fashion that bordered the surreal. For 18 minutes, through the first 18 minutes, the 'Cats were clinicians, running their offense with precision and getting a star turn from the forward John Shurna. He was resplendent during this stretch, both draining jumpers and getting himself to the basket, and when he dropped a three with 2:22 remaining until the half, his team was up 10 and soaring.
"Shurna was special in the first half," Illinois coach Bruce Weber would later say, but it was right here that this game turned and took on its paranormal hue. For now, after Weber's stagnant offense produced one more empty trip, Crawford charged and gave the Illini a chance for a quick flurry. They got it first from Henry, who here dropped a three, and then, after a turnover by Shurna, they got it next from Meyers Leonard, who put home a fast break dunk.
Still, with 31 seconds remaining, the 'Cats had a chance for another score, but here Shurna was stripped as he attempted to shoot and they went to their locker room up only five. "We had opportunities in the first half, wide open shots that we didn't knock down," Carmody would later say.
He would also say, "I don't think we played a great first half. I thought we should have had a 12-point lead or so."
Crawford, in the first half, attempted just three shots and made only one and ended with a mere two points. His struggles would only continue. Sobolewski, in the first half, attempted five shots and made not one of them and ended with a donut. His struggles would also continue. Shurna, in the first half, made seven of his 10 shots and ended with 17. But now he too would struggle as the 'Cats endured a drought of Biblical proportions.
That, you may say, sounds like an exaggeration, but the numbers here are as stark and as unforgiving as a perfectly-thrown left hook. For the 'Cats, after being up 10, now did this over the next 19:21: they went three-of-16 from the field and two-of-six from the line and committed eight of their eventual nine turnovers. Crawford scored once in this stretch, on a driving layup, but Shurna did not and that was true too of Sobolewski, who got his only points at the free throw line with just three minutes remaining.
They left the 'Cats down five and now, 32 seconds later, Shurna went up for a three from the left wing hoping to pare that margin down even more. The Illini, in the first half, had covered him with the 6-foot-3 D.J. Richardson, and he had torched him. But in the second half the job went to the 6-foot-4 Brandon Paul, who was now smothering him. "He did a great job, no doubt," Weber would say of his guard.
"They really clamped down on us," said Carmody when asked about his team's second-half struggles. "We just weren't able to get untracked. So you have to give them credit for that second half defense."
"They put Brandon Paul on me, a little bigger," said Shurna when asked about his own second-half struggles. "But I missed shots. It's on me."
He now missed this one and another at 1:45, and when Paul dropped one-of-two free throws at 1:43, the 'Cats were down eight and reeling and heading for the mat. But here, like a proud boxer who just refuses to go down, they shook off the cobwebs and roused themselves and offered a final flurry of their own. They got a free throw from JerShon Cobb and, after Paul missed the front end, a three from Alex Marcotullio that pulled them to within four at 1:19. Now, after a miss by the Illini's Leonard, Shurna picked up his only field goal of the second half, a three that pulled them to within one at :36.3.
This one was now a runaway train rushing toward its conclusion, and next came a free throw from Leonard, a missed three by Cobb, a gritty offensive rebound by Crawford to forge the tie at 56, and Paul driving for a layup that would put the Illini back in the lead. Crawford was there in front of him, planted in the lane, and Paul barreled into him as he offered and missed, and when no whistle came Henry grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Sobolewski with those six seconds remaining. "I couldn't tell," Carmody would say when asked about the non-call. "Northwestern people told me it was a charge. But I couldn't see. I couldn't tell from down there."
"Just trying to make a play," said Crawford himself. "I'm not really sure, actually. I'll see it on tape and make a decision."
Drew Crawford, in full flight, drives down the left side and offers, but there too is the 7-foot-1 Leonard, who blocks the 'Cats final chance for a victory. "I got to the basket, tried to get to the basket," Crawford would later say. "I probably should have gone all the way, but I stopped short and it was a good block...
"It's a tough loss, especially making that comeback at the end of the game. Any close game, when you have a chance to win and you're not able to pull it out is always a tough loss."