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Behind Leron Black, Illinois avoids upset bid from UT-Martin

The Illini struggled at the end, but are still undefeated under Brad Underwood.

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Leron Black had to score a career-high 23 points while reeling in eight rebounds to help Illinois escape with a 77-74 victory over UT-Martin.

Black played 34 minutes in the Illini’s second game of the season and could not be contained by the Ohio Valley Conference’s Skyhawks, shooting 8-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe.

“Just trusting the system and trying to be in the right spots,” Black said. “ Just knowing that we got great guards, players and great teammates that are trying to find me and I’m just able to make open shots.”

Fatodd Lewis converted on a layup with 38 seconds left in the second half to cut the deficit — 16 points with three minutes remaining — to only three.

Black missed two shots in the paint on the ensuing Illinois possession, and UT-Martin found itself with a chance to tie the game with 00.9 seconds on the clock. Darius Thomas could not be the hero the Skyhawks needed and missed the potential game-tying shot after they inbounded the ball.

Delfincko Bogan led the way for the Skyhawks with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting and 3-of-5 shooting from deep.

Where Illinois struggled

18 turnovers by Illinois allowed UT-Martin to stay in the game, and that is something Underwood is certainly not happy with.

“Te’Jon had four of them that were offensive, I can live with some of those,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “Some of that’s youth. Mark’s I thought were aggressive, but you can’t make that... I can live with those because they are aggressive.”

The Illini also struggled from deep once again, only connecting on six of their 23 three-point attempts. The team as a whole shot 44.8 percent in the game.

The next leading scorer for Illinois was the freshman guard out of Edwardsville, Illinois, Mark Smith. He got the start once again and scored 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Smith hit all five of his free throw attempts.

Illinois staves off UT-Martin runs

Illinois got hot towards the end of the half, hitting 10 of its last 12 shots to jump out to a 44-29 lead at the break. Black led all scorers with 13 points and five rebounds at the half, followed by nine points from freshman guard Mark Smith.

After having the lead at half, the Skyhawks came out in the second half and outplayed the Illini, outscoring them 45-33.

UT-Martin threw a variety of zone defenses at Illinois, which seemed to cause some issues for the Illini, but Underwood was pleased with how his team responded.

UT-Martin went on a 14-0 run early in the second half, cutting the deficit to four points and making the game interesting late.

“I think we just played scared,” Michael Finke said. “Their press really got to us, we turned the ball over a little too much... That’s on us players, we’ve got to be better with the ball.”

Aaron Jordan has a role

A big spark off the bench for Illinois was Aaron Jordan.

He scored 10 points and brought solid defensive energy for all 16 minutes that he played.

“He’s been incredible, I’ve to probably get him more minutes to be honest,” Underwood said. “I’m so happy for (Jordan) because he’s a guy that’s put in so much time and so much work, and he’s playing with so much confidence.”

What’s next

The Illini’s next opponent with be the DePaul Blue Demons on Friday night at State Farm Center.

Underwood says he isn’t worried about his team’s struggles shooting the ball so far this season.

“I believe in our guys to shoot ’em,” Underwood said. “I don’t ever worry too much about shooting; I’m worried more about the offensive end and the execution. I thought all the shots were really good shots.”