The Illinois Fighting Illini lived up to their name tonight. They stayed with Villanova through a neck-and-neck match. Both teams were like fighters in the ring. They responded to each haymaker with a counter, not allowing the other to get too far ahead. Until of course, the very end – when one team couldn’t take the punches anymore and faced imminent defeat.
In the first five minutes of the game, the lead had already changed hands more than a handful of times. It set the pace for the back-and-forth nature that would dominate the game. Shots fell seamlessly at both ends of the court. The Wildcats took a 21-11 lead off of a 10-0 run that lasted for nearly four and half minutes. Illinois was plagued by fouls, allowing Villanova to capitalize off of free throws. During this stretch, it seemed that Villanova would be able to pull away early and ride a big lead all the way to the end, just as they have done before. However, the Illini refused to roll over.
Nnanna Egwu nailed a three pointer off of the pass by Ahmad Starks. The Wildcats started to go on a drought of their own, while Illinois slowly inched back into the game. They were able to cut the deficit down to just three points off of a Malcolm Hill layup. This lead was extended with the help of made free throws to help give Villanova a gasp of fresh air, but Illinois was always there to take it away. The Wildcats had a 33-27 lead going into the half.
Unlike the first half, the second half was about trading runs – not baskets. Darrun Hilliard got the scoring started for Villanova with a three-pointer. Ryan Arcidiacono would follow up with a jumper. Illinois’ defense would then get the best of Villanova. The Wildcats would go on a dry spell that was marked by multiple turnovers. Meanwhile, Illinois capitalized on Villanova’s miscues and eventually tied the game up at 38.
A layup by Kris Jenkins would break the stalemate and would be the beginning of another nice run. However, like other runs that took place earlier in the game, they didn’t last too long. Later in the second half, Aaron Cosby nailed a three-pointer to tie up the game. Now tied at 50, the Wildcats needed a response to get momentum back. Dylan Ennis had not one, but two baskets from long range. From there, Villanova began to take their offense inside. Daniel Ochefu supplied a number of baskets down in the post, showing off his graceful hook shot. On the other hand, Illinois started to slow down.
A pair of Ennis free throws extended the Wildcat lead into the double digits with 3:52 remaining in the game. Illinois went cold down the stretch, a part of that is attributed to Villanova’s defense. The Illini would respond with their final basket of the game, a layup by Rayvonte Rice. However, the Wildcats weren’t finished yet. A three point basket for Hilliard buried them, while layups by Ochefu and Josh Hart effectively placed the finishing touches on the well-deserved win. The game was a lot closer than the final score suggested, 73-59.
Dylan Ennis emerged at the forefront, with an 18 point, 5 rebound performance. He made 7-of-10 shots and was also a defensive force, stealing the ball three times. Ochefu, Hilliard, and Hart broke the double-digit threshold. Both Ochefu and Hilliard chipped in 12 points. Ochefu’s development has come along, showing prowess in the post offensively and defensively. The junior center added four blocks and was 6-for-10 on the night. On the other hand, Hilliard contributed four rebounds and three steals. Hart came off the bench and contributed 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds. As a team, they got back on track from the free throw line, shooting 78.6%.
For Illinois, they were carried by a 20-point performance by Malcolm Hill. Rayvonte Rice had 10 points and four steals. Nnanna Egwu finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
Villanova improves to 9-0. They take on Big 5 rival Temple this Sunday at 2 p.m.