CHAMPAIGN — There's nothing pretty about what's staring the Illini in the face when they look in the mirror.
On Saturday, the reflection may have gotten uglier. Florida Atlantic flew into Champaign and handed the Illini a 73-71 overtime loss that was a reality check for a team that desperately craved wins ahead of the resumption of Big Ten play on Thursday at No. 23 Indiana.
"I take a lot, a lot of pride in not losing games that you should win," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "It stings. I’m not detracting from FAU at all. They’re a good basketball team, they played hard, they deserve to win. ... You shouldn’t lose games like that at home."
When one domino fell, they all came teetering down for the Illini (4-9). Missed shots on offense led to lapses on defense. Fouls at half-court added up to easy free throws for the Owls (9-4), who play in Conference USA.
“It’s a culmination," senior guard Aaron Jordan, who had 20 points, said. "We didn’t hit shots when we needed to. On the defensive end, second half-wise wasn’t what we did in the first half. We’re seeing that.
“Now it’s time for players to look at themselves to see what we can do to get better."
Despite shooting 31.6 percent from the field and bricking a total of 29 3-pointers to the tune of 23.7 percent, Illinois still had a fighting chance to salvage the identity-establishing win Underwood has been seeking with a young roster.
Then two free throws from Trent Frazier clanked off the rim with 29 seconds left in overtime that would have given the Illini a three-point lead. On the other end, FAU's Anthony Adger converted a three-point play to give the Owls a two-point lead with 20 seconds left.
On Illinois' next possession, freshman Ayo Dosunmu drove throw the lane, and kicked it to Da’Monte Williams in the corner. Williams shot smacked the front of the rim and into the arms of the Illini, but Dosunmu’s last-second desperation heave through a parliament of Owls didn’t graze the rim.
“We’ve got to make shots," said Dosunmu, who had a team-high 21 points. "If we make shots, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation if we won. At the end of the day, that’s all it is is make shots."
It took a bit of wizardry for Illinois to even get to that point — in overtime with a chance to escape a non-conference loss to the No. 215th-ranked team in the KenPom rankings. It was the worst loss by KenPom rankings since the Illini lost to the University of Illinois-Chicago, Dec. 18, 2010, at the United Center.
Illinois trailed by six points, 61-55, with 1:04 left in regulation before Frazier took over. He scored five straight Illini points to draw within one, 61-60, with 42 seconds left.
Outside of that, it was an otherwise quiet scoring night for Frazier, who was 2-of-9 shooting for nine points. He was a focus for FAU coach Dusty May.
“Guarding Frazier was the key," May said. "He’s capable of getting 25 or 27 in the half. I thought the job we did on him was as important as anything."
Richardson Maitre hit a runner in the lane to give FAU a 63-60 lead. Underwood called a timeout on the other end and Dosunmu hit a game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left — his final points of the game.
After the game, Dosunmu gave a list of NBA teams that have gone through struggles this year, including the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics. There's something, Dosunmu said, to be learned from the loss.
“That’s what happens to good teams," he said. "You can’t just win. You’ve got to learn how to win and also you’ve got to be able to take losses to be able to win."
There are lessons to be taken away from this game ahead of a stretch of 18 consecutive Big Ten games that Jordan said he can't prepare his teammates for; it's something they simply must experience.
His advice is to "do better" in every facet of the game.
“Maybe we’re too full of ourselves and we’re thinking, ‘I’m doing this or I’m doing that’, but maybe we need to be invested in the team more," Jordan said.
Now, Illinois must look in the same mirror and examine what's looking back at, and that's a 4-9 start with arguably the most difficult conference in basketball left on the schedule.
“It can’t be all feel good," Underwood said. "Basketball doesn’t work that way. It’s not about just feeling good. It's not feeling good when the ball goes in and we're all excited, rah, rah. That's fake stuff. That's not real. We all know that's not life, either.
“It’s when things get difficult, it’s who are you going to be? Look yourself in the mirror. Who are you going to be?"