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Leron Black’s career-high leads Illinois past UT-Martin

The junior forward notched 23 points against the Skyhawks.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Leron Black was always a workhorse for former Illinois men’s basketball head coach John Groce as a freshman and sophomore, but he averaged a modest 8.1 points in 2016-17 as a sophomore.

Under first-year head coach Brad Underwood, Black has a new role, and he seems to be thriving.

Black played 34 minutes in Illinois’ second game of the season Sunday night, a 77-74 win over Tennessee-Martin. It was not just his endurance and hustle, however, that did it for the Tennessee native Sunday night.

The junior forward scored a career-high 23 points on 8-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe.

He credits his performance to his team’s young backcourt, Mark Smith and Te’Jon Lucas.

“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, I’m just able to make open shots.”

In an upset bid by the Ohio Valley Conference’s Skyhawks, Black stepped up in the post as Illinois’ ‘center’ — a difficult term to coin him due to his being only 6-foot-7 — on offense and defense (eight total rebounds).

Black’s strong second half helped Illinois extend its lead to as many as 16 with three minutes remaining, but a late run by UT-Martin almost sparked the opening weekend upset in Champaign, Illinois.

UT-Martin forward Fatodd Lewis made a layup with 38 seconds left in regulation to cut the deficit to three points, and Black missed two close-range shots for Illinois on the ensuing offensive possession. The Skyhawks regained possession with 0.9 seconds on the clock, but Skyhawks guard Darius Thomas’ game-tying heave from inside half court missed.

UT-Martin outscored Illinois in the second half, 45-33, despite taking the loss.

“I think we just played scared,” Illinois junior forward 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.”

The Illini (2-0) also had 18 turnovers on Sunday night, compared to only ten total turnovers in the season opener versus Southern. Sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas had five turnovers, and his starting backcourt mate — and 2017 Mr. Illinois Basketball winner — Mark Smith had four.

Underwood says he is not overly concerned about the early-season turnovers.

“Te’Jon had four of them that were offensive, I can live with some of those,” Underwood said. “Some of that’s youth. I thought (Mark’s) were aggressive. I can live with those because they are aggressive.”

Underwood, known for his ‘seven-second offense’ during brief coaching stints at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State before arriving at Illinois this past March, is an advocate of three-point shooting.

His current Illini are still adjusting to his aggressive offensive style, shooting 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) from three-point range against the Skyhawks.

Underwood says he is not worried about his team’s struggles shooting the ball through two games.

“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.”

Aaron Jordan is benefiting from Underwood’s offensive scheme. The junior is seeing increased playing time from the past two seasons. He shot 2-of-5 from behind-the-arc and played 16 minutes.

“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.”

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

Four Illini scored in double-digits, led by Black’s 23 points. Smith (13 points), Finke (12) and Jordan (10) also cracked double figures.

Illinois is off until Friday when it welcomes the DePaul Blue Demons to the State Farm Center as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Illinois and DePaul have not played each other since 1957.