First-half run dooms Rutgers again on road in Champaign
In a different historic Big Ten venue, the same old problems resurfaced Tuesday night for the Rutgers men's basketball team.
Three days after falling short of an upset at then-No. 22 Indiana, 72-64, the Scarlet Knights went into the State Farm Center and competed well on the road again — this time against Illinois in the program's first-ever visit to Champaign.
At least, for the first 16 minutes.
In a half filled with three ties and nine lead changes, the Fighting Illini went on a 16-4 run to enter halftime with a 35-24 advantage. They never looked back in an eventual 66-54 win.
Rutgers' (10-14, 2-9) season-worst losing streak extended to seven games, while Illinois (15-8, 5-5) has now won consecutive contests for the first time in 2015.
The Illini opened the second half with a 13-4 run, highlighted by smooth outside strokes from Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. Nunn scored a game-high 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists, while Hill poured in 15 points.
Two other Illini scored in double figures in a balanced effort featuring 48 percent shooting from the field, seven three-pointers and 15 bench points.
The Knights, meanwhile, extracted only four points from its bench — all in the first half.
Senior forward Kadeem Jack nearly posted a double-double, tallying 17 points and nine boards.
With 2:48 left in regulation, he drained a three-pointer to cut Rutgers' deficit to 62-54. But after an Illinois turnover, Jack bricked a jumper from the high post, essentially sealing the Knights' fate.
Another strong effort from Myles Mack was also in vain.
The senior guard stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal.
After Mack fed a nice entry pass in the lane to freshman center Shaquille Doorson with about seven minutes left in the first half, Illinois' game-changing 16-4 run ensued.
Rutgers jumped out to a solid start, dishing six team assists through the first 13 minutes.
Mack carried the Knights with a game-high 12 first-half points — including eight in the first 12 minutes — to go along with four rebounds and an assist.
The Paterson, New Jersey, native converted a driving layup to cut an early Illinois lead to 12-8, then raced back down the floor for a conventional three-point play after junior center Greg Lewis blocked a shot at the other end. That gave Rutgers a 13-12 lead with 10:52 left in the half.
But the Knights committed nine first-half turnovers, leading to 11 points for the Fighting Illini, who shot 4-for-9 from beyond the arc and 54 percent overall from the field in the period.
The Knights were playing their third game in six days. They now have four days off before a two-game home tilt at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, beginning Sunday against No. 20 Ohio State.
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