The Illinois Fighting Illini were coming off a heart-breaking loss to the Indiana Hoosiers this past weekend, and were looking like dead men walking early-on in this game. Whether it was a carry-over effect or just a lack of offense due to a ridiculous amount of injuries, the Illini weren't too sharp for most of the first half. But with under three minutes to go until halftime, and down 30-24, Malcolm Hill and Leron Black helped lead the Illini on an 8-0 scoring run. Hill hit a three in the final moments and suddenly Illinois was up by two at the break despite shooting only 28.6 percent from the field.
It was a back-and-forth battle in the second half, but Leron Black proved to be too much for Purdue's impressive post presence as he helped lead Illinois to a nine-point victory. More on him in a moment, but three other Illini players also managed to reach double-figures in the scoring column: Hill, Nunn, and Egwu. It was an all-around effort from an Illini roster that was missing several key players. They managed to put a nail in Purdue's coffin when Jaylon Tate threw a dangerous but ultimately successful outlet pass to Nnanna Egwu for a big slam dunk with only seconds remaining in the game:
EGWU SMASH pic.twitter.com/Guud0EjJzJ— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 22, 2015
The Boilermakers kept it close, and this was certainly a defensive war (or as Groce called it, "a boxing match"), but the Fighting Illini came out on top.
1. Leron Black is starting to figure it out
Heck, starting to figure it out? He's arrived. The freshman got his first-ever collegiate start tonight and certainly earned his nickname, "savage," after the performance he put up. Black had 15 points and 13 rebounds after he was put in the starting five due to Aaron Cosby's eye injury. Groce might need to consider keeping him there if he can continue to play at this high of a level. Playing against a Purdue team that was supposed to kill the Illini's post presence and dominate in the paint, and it was actually the exact opposite that ended up transpiring. Not only was Black aggressive on the glass, but he hit a dagger jumper that pretty much sealed this victory with under two minutes remaining:
Leron Black is RUTHLESS pic.twitter.com/bQhuwnmkiR— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 22, 2015
Remember when there was an incredible amount of controversy because Black was "out of control" and Dan Dakich said he needed to be "sat for an extended period of time" so he could learn how to manage his emotions? Whether it was the fact that he got the starting nod or if he just realized he had to step up his game, Black has silenced the critics and is looking like the player we all thought he'd be -- and more.
2. Illinois beat Purdue at its own game
Coming into this game, everyone was concerned about Purdue's size and post presence. Understandably, of course. Freshman center Isaac Haas and junior center A.J. Hammons both check in at over seven feet tall. The Illini's tallest player is Nnanna Egwu, who stands at 6'11. But John Groce's squad completely flipped the script on the Boilermakers and beat them at their own game, in large part to the play of Leron Black. I can't say enough about how he played tonight, so I apologize for bleeding the previous observation into this one too. He was so ferocious on both ends of the court that he made Purdue's big men look a lot smaller. As a team the Illini collected sixteen offensive rebounds and out-rebounded the Boilers overall 42-35. That's just about all you could ask for on the glass from an undermanned Illinois roster with size problems. Bravo, gentlemen.
3. These really are the FIGHTING Illini
No Rayvonte Rice or Aaron Cosby? No problem! Not to mention the already-well-documented absence of Tracy Abrams. John Groce only had about seven players he could realistically substitute in and out of the game tonight, but those seven fought like hell. To make matters worse, Nnanna Egwu picked up his fourth personal foul with sixteen minutes remaining in the game. Black had three fouls at that same juncture. This was looking like a lost cause for the Illini, but they never gave up. That is by far the most toughness and togetherness I have seen from this team in the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Egwu, with four fouls, re-entered the game at the under-eight timeout. He managed to go the entire rest of the game without committing a single foul. Malcolm Hill lost his contacts and had twenty seconds to gather himself on the sideline before shooting two crucial free-throws. He hit both of them. No matter how you want to look at all the issues this team has had to face, tonight was a perfect example of how tough and together this group can be. These really are the fighting Illini.
4. The officiating tonight was awful
I know, I know. You've only heard about how poor the Big Ten officials are a million times. But there were some incredibly questionable calls in this game. Nnanna's second personal foul, to be specific, was a play where he barely made contact with A.J. Hammons. Just put his hands up in the air and kept them there. His third was a blocking foul that looked an awful lot like a charge, again called to Hammons' benefit. By the way, Hammons finished the game with zero personal fouls. I can recall at least three times when Maverick Morgan was physically restrained or bear-hugged by a Purdue player in the post and nothing was called. To be fair, there were some questionable whistles both ways tonight. But John Groce looked like he was ready to blow his top several times throughout the game on the Illinois sideline, and I don't blame him one bit.
As an extra note, I'd like to congratulate Nnanna Egwu for becoming Illinois' all-time blocks leader. He collected five of them in this game and will continue to build on this record as the season progresses. Good for him.
Your all time blocked shot leader pic.twitter.com/Q7Q0ShrFVv— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 22, 2015
Be sure to drop by below and leave your thoughts about the Illini's impressive and gritty home win against the Boilermakers!