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Illinois finds no breaks in bad start to the Big Ten season

LINCOLN, NE - JANUARY 15: Nebraska guard James Palmer Jr. (24) makes a three point shot to win the game in the last seconds against Illinois Monday, January 15th at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Illinois 64 to 63. (Photo by John Peterson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LINCOLN, Neb. – It sure looked like this would finally be a milestone moment in the early Brad Underwood career with the Fighting Illini.

Down by two with around ten seconds to go at Nebraska Monday night, Michael Finke rose up from the wing and knocked down a three pointer to give Illinois a two-point lead. This was going to be somewhat of a relief for the team, which lost a number of close contests in a winless Big Ten season so far. Plus it would give Underwood the first tally in the win column in the conference since arriving in Champaign last winter.

But like most things this season, it didn’t go their way.

James Palmer Jr got the ball on the wing, stepped past a defender and then put up a leaning three-pointer just before the buzzer sounded and it went in. Nebraska wins by one as victory No. 1 in the conference once again escaped the Illini.

“Give him credit,” said Underwood said of Palmer’s shot, which sends the Illini to 0-6 in the Big Ten and keeps them as the only winless team in the conference. “Like I just told our guys, nothing’s given, it’s all earned till the final horn.”

Underwood’s team probably knows that already. After all, they’ve been in most of the conference games they’ve played this year and have come so close to winning a number of times before. In the first part of the Big Ten season in December, the Illini lost to Northwestern on the road then Maryland at home in overtime.

When the season restarted in January, Illinois got within five of Minnesota on the road in the second half only to lose by ten. A first half lead evaporated later that week at Michigan in another defeat, but the most painful came last Thursday against Iowa. Up by 20 over Iowa in the first half and then 13 at the break, the Illini collapsed in the second half and needed a last second three pointer by Trent Frazier to force overtime. Yet an Illini team depleted by foul trouble ended up losing by seven in the extra session.

Then came Monday night, which Finke seemed to have given the team a much-needed win in the final seconds. But Palmer’s last second heroics brought only more heartbreak for a team getting used to it in Big Ten play.

“When you look at it as a coach, you know you’re not far off,” said Underwood of Monday night and the close losses in the conference. “Yet sometimes, it seems like you’re 100 miles away.”

It’s been more like the latter during a rough start for Illinois basketball in 2017-2018.