BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — One punch landed, then two, then the swings only caught air.
Illinois raced out of the gate, landing hit after hit on No. 21 Indiana on Thursday night, jumping to an early 10-point lead and showing an offensive aptitude that's been missing for the last two games.
Suddenly the punches stopped landing, and Indiana hit one haymaker — a massive blow that didn't quite knock Illinois out, but had the Illini on the ropes for the better part of 18 minutes — on the way to a 73-65 win to keep Illinois (4-10) winless in Big Ten Conference play (0-3).
After scoring 25 points in the first 11 minutes of the game, the Illinois offense sputtered, stalled and didn’t get its footing until it was too late.
“We’ve got to do a better job late in the second half to throw the punches," Illinois freshman Ayo Dosunmu said. "We’re taking the punch and coming back and we’re falling short. If we get up a little bit and come out harder, I feel like us as a team, mentally and physically, we’re the best we have been this whole season."
Indiana (12-2) outscored Illinois 40-15 during an 18 minute, 22 second span that started with 9:06 left in the first half and bled into the second half, ending with 8:31 left in the game. The run was sparked by do-it-all Indiana freshman Romeo Langford, who went on a personal 8-0 run to start the second half and finished with a game-high 28 points.
The Illini cut the Hoosiers' lead to four points with 2:29 left in the game, but couldn't land the elusive big swing at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., despite one final jab that had the nationally ranked Hoosiers wobbly.
Illinois, trailing 62-50, went on an 8-0 run, behind five points from Dosunmu and two from freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili to cut the Hoosier lead to 62-58 with 2:29 remaining before Indiana salted away the win.
"They are a very, very tough team and we knew that coming in, but just finding a way to win the game was the most important thing," Indiana coach Archie Miller said. "Early on, we were going to have to play through some things to figure them out because it's always a different change, it's a drastic style change and we didn't handle it well early."
Dosunmu finished with 20 points, three rebounds and three assists, and Bezhanishvili had 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Illini led 25-15 with 10:20 left in the first half and had the Hoosiers out of sorts. Indiana, though, closed the first half strong and tied the game 32-all on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Justin Smith.
Then Langford took over, scoring 19 of his 28 points in the second half, including the personal 8-0 run to start the frame.
“Give Romeo a lot of credit," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Romeo was pretty dominant in that segment. The last three minutes of the first half, we didn’t execute. We had three or four plays where we botched execution.
“The start of the second half was really the difference."
Outside of Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili, the rest of the Illini were quiet. Leading scorer Trent Frazier battled foul trouble in the first half and finished with 11 points. Kipper Nichols, also a victim of foul trouble, had two points, and Aaron Jordan had two points. Da'Monte Williams had seven points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Illinois had 21 turnovers, including five shot-clock violations, which Dosunmu called "inexcusable."
“It’s hard to win on the road with 21 turnovers and yet I feel like we did some things that were much better," Underwood said. "I loved our effort. I loved our fight. You guys now know why I say I like this team a lot. This team continues to grow."
The 18 points were the most for Bezhanishvili since his 22-point game on Nov. 27 against Notre Dame. Underwood said he wants to make it a point to get the big man the ball more frequently. He scored six early points to help Illinois to its opening-frame lead.
“I loved the start of the game — establishing Giorgi on the block," Underwood said. "Giorgi has proven he can score against the best players that this country has to offer."
Despite trailing by 15 points with 8:31 remaining, Bezhanishvili, known for his enigmatic attitude, wasn't prepared to roll over in his first trip to Indiana.
“Obviously it takes energy," he said of the comeback. "We believe in each other. We came closer together. If we’re down 15, we’re down 20, we’re down 30, we still believe in each other. It’s about us, as a team. Together."
That passion is exactly what Underwood cherishes about this team.
"I’m excited about this group beyond what our record shows," he said. "It’s so exciting to go to practice every day because they fight. They know they lost today, but yet it’s the next challenge. It’s the next day to get better."
In the end, Illinois couldn't land the one final punch to close out a second-half rally and leave with a win. But Dosunmu is unfazed. It's coming, he said.
“We’ve taken our punches, but you best believe we’re going to throw ours. Better days are ahead," he said.