GAME NOTES: No longer among the nationally-ranked, the Illinois Fighting Illini try to get back on track Tuesday night as they contend with the Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln.
Since opening the 2012-13 campaign with a 12-game win streak, the Illini have hit the wall. The slide began with an 82-73 setback versus Missouri in December and has continued on with four more defeats in the last five outings. Last Thursday night Illinois, while ranked 23rd in the country, was pitted against Northwestern at home and bowed in a 68-54 final.
At this point, Illinois is dealing with a three-game slide and is just 1-5 in conference play, which has the program settling near the bottom of the league standings, ahead of only Penn State and the Huskers.
Nebraska, now in its second season the Big Ten, has again found the new set of foes somewhat hard to decipher. On Saturday, the team barely beat out Penn State, 68-64, the only school in the conference that is playing below .500 overall. The victory snapped a five-game skid for the Huskers.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, one that dates back to 1921, the Illini are ahead by a count of 8-3, taking six of the seven games played in Illinois. Last season, each team won on its home floor, with Illinois posting a 59-54 victory in Champaign in early January, and the Cornhuskers returning the favor a month later in a surprising 80-57 decision in Lincoln.
For the second straight game the Illini were held below 55 points as they fell by double figures to Northwestern at home last week. Brandon Paul tried to give Illinois a fighting chance as he tallied 21 points, but he shot just 2- of-7 behind the 3-point line, the team finishing a mere 3-of-20 beyond the arc in the setback. Tracy Abrams accounted for 10 points and four assists, but he was also charged with four turnovers as the team fumbled the ball away 18 times. Playing more than 32 minutes per game, Paul leads the team in scoring overall with his 18.2 ppg, doing a considerable amount of damage at the free- throw line (89-of-124) where he has made more shots than anyone else on the team has even attempted thus far. Abrams checks in with another 11.9 ppg and along with Paul has combined for 117 assists in order to try and jump-start the rest of the offense.
It wasn't pretty, but the Cornhuskers played just well enough on Saturday to register their first conference win of the season against Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center. Shavon Shields accounted for 29 points, six rebounds and three steals, hitting 10-of-11 shots from the floor and 8-of-8 at the free- throw line, but before fouling out he also logged six of the unit's 11 turnovers as well. Ray Gallegos and Brandon Ubel responded with 15 and 12 points, respectively, for a group that finished a perfect 16-of-16 at the charity stripe on the day. Nebraska is by no means a high-scoring program, in fact the team had been held below 50 points in each of their first three conference games this season, so it should not come as a surprise that right now the group is putting up just 58.6 ppg. Gallegos (13.2 ppg) and Dylan Talley (12.9 ppg) are both shooting under 40 percent from the floor, but still they remain the best options on offense.
This might be the perfect opponent for the Illini to face right now, with Illinois needing a boost in confidence and a tally in the win column.
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