Oh, Kendrick, it's good to have you back.
In his first game back since a torn left thumb ligament in October, Kendrick Nunn dropped 18 points including shooting 3-5 from three in Illinois' 72-58 win over UAB in the Emerald Coast Classic. Maverick Morgan added a career-high 12 points, and Malcolm Hill finished with 12 points, 6 assists and 4 steals.
The Illini got out to an even start, staying level with UAB for much of the first half. They did not allow a three until 3:35 remaining in the first half, a giant achievement for a team that's gotten lit up much of this season from beyond the arc. Nunn finished the half with 10 points and the Illini entered half with a 28-23 lead.
The second half was all Illinois. Hill came out with seven early points and the Fighting Illini never looked back, leading wire-to-wire. Morgan got going and Nunn hit a couple threes to seal the victory.
With the win, Illinois advances to the championship game (gasp*) of the ECC where they will face the #4 Iowa State Cyclones, who blew out Virginia Tech 99-77 earlier Friday.
1. Kendrick Nunn, you have been missed
Perhaps we were too quick to dismiss the impact that Nunn can have on this Illini team. Coming off the bench, the junior shooting guard was effective throughout, playing solid perimeter defense and making plays all over, including one in which he threw the ball of a UAB defender's foot to retain possession. He also demonstrated the range everyone raves about, hitting 3 of 5 from downtown. It's official Illini fans, Kendrick's Korner has reopened.
2. The Rise of Maverick Morgan
Once the brunt of all jokes Illini, Maverick Morgan has shown incredible strides in his game thus far. The junior center came in for Mike Thorne and finished with a career-high 12 points on a perfect 6-6 shooting. This while only picking up one personal foul. Yes, you read that right. The same man who averaged nearly as many fouls per game as rebounds last season has developed into a legitimate Big Ten center. Its difficult to understate the importance of this for the Illini, especially for the future. With Thorne gone next season, it actually looks as if Morgan will be a suitable full time starter. We'll see if he can maintain his 7.5 PPG pace throughout the season.
3. The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick maker
Ok, I hate this analogy as much as you do, but the message rings true: Malcolm Hill can do everything. Hill was all over the court, making plays on both ends. He was one of the biggest reasons the Illini were able to force 16 turnovers out of UAB, grabbing four steals of his own. He also had a sweet dime to Black in the post, showing off an improved passing game. And as always, the step back fade was smooth as silk. He may have gone 4-11 from the field, but his presence was a huge factor in this win.
4. The defense looks presentable
After struggling mightily against mid-major opponents early this season, Illinois finally found their footing against the Blazers. While UAB certainly didn't help themselves out shooting 38.8% from the field, the Illini were much more effective guarding the perimeter and the low post. The zone was working well throughout and the help defense from Finke and Black was working in tandem with Thorne/Morgan. That being said, this UAB team is much weaker that what Illinois will get with Iowa State. Georges Niang is, well, a monster.
The Fighting Illini have their work cut out when they take on ISU tomorrow night in the Emerald Coast Classic championship game. The Cyclones are the #4 ranked team in the nation and feature All-American Georges Niang, among others. The game will air at 6:00 CT on CBS Sports Net.