When Leron Black and Te’Jon Lucas were sidelined due to foul trouble in the first half, Smith took control of the game scoring 14 points in the first half to put Illinois out in front 39-32 at half.
“Mark’s been huge for us,” junior guard Aaron Jordan said. “Such a big body guy being able to drive the ball in there and attack the rim. He’s a great player, honestly, he’s going to be huge for us going down the road.”
DePaul’s Marin Maric constant presence in the paint allowed the Blue Demons, who only trailed by seven at the break, to stay close in the first half. He had 12 points and four rebounds, including three offensive boards.
The Illini found some trouble in the second half when they picked up eight quick fouls before the first media timeout, and the Blue Demons were quickly in the bonus.
Black, Lucas, Smith and Fine missed a significant amount of time in the second half because of foul trouble. This allowed the Blue Demons to cut the deficit to two with 13:58 minutes left in the game.
Kipper Nichols, however, gave Illinois the energy boost it needed off the bench. He scored seven straight points which included a strong finish - which he was fouled on - and a one man fast-break that ended with a one-handed slam that brought the fans at the State Farm Center to their feet.
“I mentioned in our press conference that I gave Kipper a hug the other day cause he was tremendous, I can promise you this, he will get a hug tomorrow. He was outstanding,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “He’s a valuable, valuable, valuable piece [to our bench].”
Nichols matched a career-high 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, 2-of-3 from beyond-the-arc. He also added four rebounds to his stat line.
While this spurt was much needed for the Illini, the Blue Demons were still able to climb back into the game as 18 total Illinois turnovers and 18 personal foul calls in the second half alone allowed DePaul to get easy points and trail 64-61 with 7:33 to go in the game.
But a 9-1 run that included a huge three-pointer from Jordan and a Michael Finke layup in transition allowed Illinois to pull back out in front of DePaul and essentially take away any opportunity of a Blue Demon’s comeback.
“A good slug fest,” Underwood said. “Punch, counter-punch type of game, and some growth on our part.
Smith’s free throws late put the nail in the coffin and the Illini still remain undefeated in the Brad Underwood era.
Illini bench compensates for lack of scoring from starters
On a night where Smith was the only Illini starter that reached double figure scoring, the bench made up for that immensely by scoring 37 points, led obviously by Nichol’s 16 points.
Jordan tacked on another seven points along with nine rebounds, Da’Monte Williams tallied a season-high eight points and five rebounds, and Trent Frazier scored six points and hauled in three rebounds.
“I love productivity off the bench, I try to find that,” Underwood said. “I thought we had a great stretch there with Kip, then Trent got going there a little bit, AJ is obviously playing at an elite-level, so our bench is being pretty productive.”
Illinois will only have one day of rest before they have to head back to the State Farm Center to face off against Marshall.
“I’ll watch tonight’s game and put together a few things that we’ve got to get better at, show our team, and be on to Marshall,” Underwood said.