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Illinois tops N.C. Central despite sluggish first half

The Illini managed to erase their terrible first half thanks to Finke’s 22 points.

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

When his team needed him most, junior forward Michael Finke delivered.

With the game tied up at 37 early in the second half against North Carolina Central, Finke nailed a three from the corner to take the lead to get his 10th, 11th and 12th points of the game.

N.C. Central came down the other end and were able to get Zacarry Douglas a good look at the rim — or so they thought.

Finke rotated perfectly in help-side defense and sent the shot back to where it came from.

The Illini got back on offense, and Finke sent the crowd to its feet when he nailed another three to make it a 43-37 advantage.

“Teammates found me for both of those threes and it felt good,” Finke said. “Overall I felt pretty good and going to keep staying aggressive.”

Finke finished with 22 points (8-of-15 from field, 5-of-11 from three) and six boards to lead all scorers in the game.

N.C. Central would not see the lead in the second half after they led 35-34 heading into the break.

What happened that first half?

The Illini came out of the gates nailing shots from beyond-the-arc. A pair of threes from Finke sparked Illinois’ three ball and Brad Underwood’s team started the night shooting 5-of-8 from deep.

Some poor defense allow N.C. Central, however, to go on a 8-0 run late in the first half. Illinois also found itself it foul trouble in the first half, and Leron Black and Kipper Nichols were forced to sit for the majority of the first frame with two fouls a piece.

Illinois’ poor shooting gave N.C. Central several good looks on offense. The Eagles got to the line 14 times in the first half and converted on 11 of those opportunities.

At half, Illinois was 12-of-31 from the field (38.7 percent) and 5-of-17 from long range and trailing 34-35.

“That was probably one of the worst halves we’ve played thus far,” Aaron Jordan said.

The Eagles also had the advantage on the boards, 17-12, at the break.

Mark Smith looked disengaged in the first half. The freshman was held scoreless in the half, missing all three of his shots and lacking aggressiveness on both ends.

Aaron Jordan continues impressive bench play

Finke had a partner in crime during that second half surge for the Illini — Aaron Jordan.

After Smith failed to collect a defensive rebound just seconds into the half, Underwood subbed him out for Jordan. Jordan nailed his second three of the game to give his team the immediate lead in the second half the following possession.

Jordan was not done there. The junior hit two more shots from beyond-the-arc to finish with 16 points.

“Aaron was Aaron,” Underwood said. “The correlation between showing up in the game and getting open shots, then showing up on the court. He's running at a pretty high level right now.”

Illinois passing the rock well

Illinois’ ball movement also came alive in the second half, finishing with 20 assists and 10 turnovers after having seven assists and four turnovers in the first half.

“I love 20 assists on 28 made field goals,” Underwood said. “When offense is hard and team’s are good, you’ve got to find a way to get easy baskets

Sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas had another solid game as his team’s floor general, dishing out six assists with only one turnover. He also tied a season-high eight points as well.

“Our offense is about feel, you have to make the right pass,” Lucas said. “Luckily these guys are getting open and I’m just trying to make the right read.”

Frazier also did a solid job of distributing off the bench (four assists, zero turnovers). Frazier didn’t really look for his own tonight, scoring only three points on 1-of-3 shooting.

Illinois’ issues

Rebounding was an issue throughout the game for Illinois. N.C. Central won the rebounding battle 34-28. Black and Nichols getting in foul trouble in the first half did not help the cause.

“Rebounds mentality, something coach Underwood has been preaching to us in the locker room,” Finke said. “We can’t except with being outrebounded.”

The Mark’s both overall had bland games, combining for only nine points and shot a combined 2-of-15 from the field. This kind of productivity from your starting guards can leave some worried down the line.

What’s next

Illinois has the weekend off before heading to Winston Salem, North Carolina, for its first road test of the season on Tuesday. The Illini will play the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, a rematch of some epic battles between Deron Williams’ Illinois teams and Chris Paul’s Wake Forest squads.

Illinois then begins a short stint of conference play with games against Northwestern (road) and Maryland (home) next weekend.

“Well we’re 6-0 so I think we’re prepared,” Underwood said. “It’ll be a big boy game.”