Eric Mika’s 25 points were not enough as the BYU Cougars fell to the Illinois Fighting Illini by a score of 75-73 at the United Center in Chicago, IL. This game felt a lot like many other BYU games this season, as Mika was dominant while Nick Emery and T.J. Haws both struggled, combining for just 9/27 shooting and 4/15 from beyond the arc.
BYU got off to a rough start as Mika picked up a foul within the first few minutes of the game and played soft post defense, resulting in several easy baskets for Illinois center Maverick Morgan. Morgan finished with 14 points on 7/10 shooting and 10 rebounds. At the 12:17 mark, Mika picked up a dreaded second foul after grabbing an offensive rebound and then pushing off on the Illinois defender. Couple that with hot three point shooting (the Illini hit 4 of their first 6 from beyond the arc), and BYU was down by double figures midway through the first half.
After Michael Finke hit a three pointer that bounced up high off the back rim and dropped in, Illinois built a 37-21 lead. Every aspect of BYU’s defense struggled in the first half: post defense, contesting shooters, and containing dribble penetration. Even when the Cougars moved to a 2-3 zone defense, Malcolm Hill split the two perimeter defenders (Haws and Emery) to get into the paint, and passed the ball to an Illini forward for an easy layup on the low block. Despite the foul trouble, Mika returned for a productive few minutes to help BYU cut the Illinois lead to 43-37 lead at halftime.
The Cougars played more disciplined defense in the second half, and nearly cut the Illinois lead to a single point, but back-to-back missed layups from Steven Beo and Braiden Shaw and a missed front end of a one-and-one free throw by Nick Emery halted the BYU momentum. A brutal stretch for the Cougars culminated in two offensive rebounds for Illinois leading to a Tracy Abrams three pointer, and a Malcolm Hill steal and uncontested basket, giving the Fighting Illini a 65-58 lead with five minutes remaining. Eric Mika kept BYU in the game on his own, and second three- pointer from Colby Leifson cut the Illini lead to 69-68 with 1:41 remaining.
BYU shot itself in the foot for the final time when Nick Emery telegraphed a pass that was stolen by Tracy Abrams for an easy layup to give Illinois a 73-68 lead. BYU kept it close with two consecutive jumpers from L.J. Rose that cut the Illinois lead to two points. When Malcolm Hill missed the front end of a one-and-one for the Illini, Nick Emery nearly made a game winning half court shot at the buzzer, but it bounced off the back of the rim and the Cougars suffered a heart-breaking 75-73 loss.
It will be very difficult for BYU to earn an at large berth as they suffered their 3rd loss in their last 4 games away from Provo. While the Colorado win was beneficial for BYU’s resume, this loss hurts more because the Cougars now have only four more regular season chances for a quality win: both games against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. It is very clear that BYU is lacking depth with the injuries to Kyle Davis (3 minutes played) and Elijah Bryant (did not play for the 6th consecutive game). When Emery, Haws, and Rose have struggled, there is usually not a viable option off the bench to replace them. Ultimately, too many small mistakes by this young team cost this team another close game, and the Cougars (7-4) will regroup for a Tuesday night contest against Idaho State at home.