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Illini come through in 'typical day in the Big Ten'

Feb. 4—CHAMPAIGN — Early February or not, nine games left in the Big Ten or not, there were stakes to Sunday's matchup between then-No. 14 Illinois and Nebraska at State Farm Center.

The Illini entered the game with a chance to move into a tie for second place in the Big Ten standings after No. 6 Wisconsin dropped a home game to No. 2 Purdue earlier in the day. All it was going to take was avoiding a similar fate against the Cornhuskers. And avoiding another home loss in league play.

Easier said than done apparently.

Illinois watched a double-digit lead late in the second half disappear in a combination of an out-of-sorts offense, missed free throws and mental mistakes. Nebraska finally got some stops, kept the Illini off the offensive glass and forced overtime against a ranked opponent for the second time in four days.

Illinois got its act together in the bonus five minutes. Enough free throws were made. Defense tightened up against Cornhuskers guard Keisei Tominaga. And the Illini eked out an 87-84 victory that put them in that tie for second place in the conference with Wisconsin — 11/2 games behind league-leading Purdue.

"We've got people who are in first place, they've got to come play us at home," Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said after Sunday's win. Illinois (17-5, 8-3 Big Ten) will host the Boilermakers on March 5 in Champaign. Purdue won the first matchup 83-78 last month in West Lafayette, Ind.

"We're in control of our destiny," Hawkins continued. "Like we talk about, it's one game at a time. We can only control what we can control. To go out and win is very big because it's just one step closer to what we're trying to accomplish."

Underwood called Sunday's back and forth with Nebraska (16-7, 6-6) a "typical day in the Big Ten."

Illinois trailed by two at halftime before jumping on the Cornhuskers early in the second half. The Illini regained the lead with 18 minutes, 12 seconds, to play and built their advantage to 10 with 3:29 left on the clock after a Terrence Shannon Jr. three-pointer.

Nebraska closed out the second half on an 11-1 run. The one point being the game-tying free throw from Marcus Domask with three seconds to play that ultimately forced overtime after he missed the second.

"We got stops," Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It's simple as that. We found a way to string together. We got a kill — three stops in a row — which we hadn't done much in that half to that point. ... I'm really proud of the guys for the resolve that they showed. As I told them in the locker room, 'Now, we know that we can do it.' You're playing one of the top teams in the country on their home floor in an unbelievable environment, and you have a chance to win."

Just the chance, though.

Nebraska was seeking its fourth win against the top-four teams in the Big Ten on Sunday in Champaign having already knocked off Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern in Lincoln, Neb. Illinois spoiled those plans. Even if rough three-point shooting and 14 turnovers nearly cost it a crucial win at home.

Sunday's win didn't quite hit full levels of winning ugly like the Illini's last Big Ten home game. Beating Indiana 70-62 was uglier.

"Pretty?" Underwood said. "Look at me. I'm ugly. (Shoot), I don't care if they're pretty or ugly or what they are. You just want to win. It doesn't matter how you do it. (Sunday's) a night we didn't shoot the ball very well and won. That's hard. That's what we've tried to build this entire program on is the ability to win and find a way to win when you don't make shots. Northwestern we made shots. Boy, it was pretty and it was great. At Northwestern, we made shots and got beat. You've got to have some toughness. You've got to have some grit, (and) players that aren't afraid of the moment."

Call it good practice for those goals Illinois is still chasing. Winning close games is a necessary step toward a Big Ten title. The same thing applies for the NCAA tournament success that's eluded the Illini thus far in the Underwood era.

"Most games played are going to be two possessions in this league," Underwood said. "The coaches are great. The players are great. The atmosphere is great. You can't be afraid of those moments. I like where our guys are at.

"When you get in postseason play and the NCAA tournament, a lot of times it's a one- or two-possession game. To get where we want to go, these are great learning experiences for us."