A strong defensive effort and balanced scoring attack helped the Illinois Fighting Illini trounce Marshall, 91-74, on Sunday night.
The Illini had five players with double-figure scoring, led by junior forward Leron Black and redshirt-sophomore Kipper Nichols, who both had 17 points a piece.
Nichols in particular had a great night as his 17 points, 11 rebounds were both career-highs, while this was also the first time in his career that he achieved a double-double.
“(Underwood) and his coaching staff push us day in and day out to be the best we can be,” Nichols said. “Just the fact that I got to start out at the beginning of the year, get acclimated with his system and get those game reps has been really helping me so far.”
The Illini finally shot the ball well from deep for the first time this season, hitting 7-of-15 (46.7 percent) from three. Overall, the team shot 44.2 percent from the field.
Junior forward Michael Finke had his best game of the season, scoring 13 points (3-of-4 from long-range) and collecting four rebounds, three of which were offensive.
It wasn’t necessarily Finke’s play on the offensive end that Underwood was most happy about.
“I thought he was really good tonight, and I’m estatic for him the way he handled his ball-screen coverage,” Underwood said. “He’s an intelligent player, and he’s smart. He sees things before it happens.”
Freshman guard Mark Smith tacked on another 13 points and Trent Frazier broke double-digit scoring for the first time in his collegiate career (10 points).
Illinois was moving the ball extremely well in the game, dishing out 19 total assists while only turning the ball over six times.
Underwood was very proud of how his team took care of the ball.
“That’s big boy basketball in a game where it was full court, a lot of possessions,” Underwood said.
On the other end is where Illinois truly shined, forcing 19 Marshall turnovers, which led to 32 points for the Illini. Marshall’s Jon Elmore struggled against the Orange and Blue’s defense, shooting 2-11 from the field and 2-7 from deep.
Jarrod West’s 23 points (7-of-8 from the field, 4-of-5 from three) led all scorers and got Marshall off to a good start against the Illini.
Marshall hit three of its first four attempts from deep starting off and jumped out to an early 14-11 lead.
A 15-1 run from the Illini, however, allowed them to propel themselves into the lead for the remainder of the half. Nichols led the way with nine points at the time, most of which came from the free throw line.
Back-to-back threes in transition from Marshall capped off a small comeback, trailing Illinois by only three at the 3:27 minute mark.
Another 11-4 run from the Illini allowed them to extend the margin to 10 at half, leading 46-36.
Marshall’s shooters did not let their deficit get too insurmountable, knocking down 7-of-18 attempts from behind-the-arc. West led everyone in scoring with 13 points (4-for-4 from deep) at half.
Illinois came out in the second half and dominated on the glass. The lead ballooned to 58-40 behind Leron Black’s 12 points and eight rebounds with about 16 minutes left in the half.
“I think we showed signs of being the team I believe we can be the first four minutes of the second half,” Underwood said. “We came out and we had eight offensive rebounds in the first four minutes. I told my team post-game that’s something we have to continue to grow on.”
Constant defensive pressure from the Illini gave Marshall fits all half and led to easy points in transition, and Illinois grew its lead to as many as 20.
Once it got to that point, the Illini bench mob, including freshman Matic Vesel, checked into the game.
Illinois (4-0) has two days off before welcoming Division III Augustana to State Farm Center on Wednesday night.
“I’m excited for our growth today,” Underwood said.