Loss to Wisconsin left Illini in survival mode. Illinois had a 14-game home winning streak snapped.

 

Things felt good for Illinois basketball during that nine-day layoff, when the Illini returned to the top 25 rankings and briefly moved into the Big Ten Conference lead.

Maybe there was a hint to believe the Illini turned a corner with that stirring win over Ohio State, but the magic didn't last long.

Following an upset loss at Penn State, No. 22 Illinois could have salvaged a split in the two-game swing against Wisconsin. The 67-63 loss to the Badgers Sunday turned the season back in the wrong direction, and the Illini's first loss at home doused any hopes for a big season.

From here, it just seems like hanging on.

"Wisconsin lost three in a row,'' Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "Look at what they've done. They've won four in a row.

"A lot can happen. A lot of craziness already happened in the Big Ten. Right now, we've got to worry about getting better.''

Illinois fell to 15-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten. The loss ended a 14-game winning streak in the Hall. Just when it appeared safe to wear orange, Illinois reminded everyone the struggles on offense, the lack of a bench and the issues of playing small ball. 

The Illini lost the Matto battle 25-23, a hustle chart number boosted by the Badgers with some late-game offensive rebounds, and when the final seconds ticked off the clock, 90 percent of the season's first sellout had already split for the parking lots. Illinois plays at Minnesota Saturday (7 p.m., BTN).

"That was a goal to not have highs and lows in the season,'' said Illini center Meyers Leonard. "Obviously, that's taken a turn. Hopefully, we can steal one on the road. Hopefully, we get better. That's what matters. We've got a lot of guys with talent. We've got to continue to listen to coaching.''

While the pregame conversation centered on getting Leonard more involved in the offense, Weber was disappointed with his defense. Wisconsin center Jared Berggren had 18 points and carried the Badgers before guard Jordan Taylor finished it off with seven points in the final 32 seconds to end up with a game-high 19.

The mobile Berrgren was 3 of 6 from the 3-point line. With Berggren on the bench with three fouls midway through the second half, the Illini went on a 15-7 run for a 50-46 lead.

"After 50-46, now you have to find a way at home to make a couple plays to put their spirit out,'' Weber said. "They out-hustled us, out-toughed us.

"We scored enough points usually to beat them. In the first half, we were pretty good on defense. We struggled on offense. In the second half, we got going on offense but couldn't get the stops and get the loose balls.''

Badgers reserve guard Ben Brust and Berggren combined for two key putbacks down the stretch, including a key basket by Berggren for a 60-57 lead with 2:15 left.

The pregame conversation was about Leonard's scoring chances, but Weber was disappointed in his defense.

"Meyers has to go to do a better job on defense and be more active,'' Weber said. Illini guard D.J. Richardson hounded Taylor into 5 of 15 shooting, but Wisconsin survived with 40.9-percent shooting from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, the Badgers allowed Illinois to grab only two offensive rebounds.

Leonard led the Illini with 16 points and 11 rebounds but shot 6 of 11, a number that left him underwhelmed. Weber agreed.

"Meyers wants to post up,'' Weber said. "It's great when we get it to him. He has to finish. When he doesn't make the plays, now nothing else happens. We're standing there, watching him.''

Bertrand had 15 points while Richardson scored 13 and Paul had 10. Paul was 3 of 11 from the field.

Wisconsin (16-5, 5-3) bounced back from three consecutive Big Ten losses, including two of them at home, yet coach Bo Ryan acted like there was never a need for a pep talk.

"I didn't know we were on (a slide),'' he said. "I never talked about streaks one way or another. It's never in our conversation. It's about next. It's who you're playing, when you're playing.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

  Illinois report card Front court -- B- Meyers Leonard scored, but he didn't get enough help on the glass. He also wasn't aggressive enough in chasing Wisconsin center Jared Berggren. Back court -- B Illini were good but not good enough. Brandon Paul cooled off. Bench -- D Coach Bruce Weber used only three subs a total of 25 minutes. By the end of the game, the Illini might have been too gassed to chase down the loose balls. Overall -- C Wisconsin isn't a giant killer, but you have to beat them. When the Illini failed to get it done, the season took a turn. At this point, it's more about survival than posting a big number.