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Illinois looks to snap losing streak in return to non-conference play

The Illini ride a three-game losing streak into Wednesday’s game vs. Austin Peay.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Usually it’s a player returning to the bench after halftime with a bandaged hand.

During Illinois’ Big Ten home opener against Maryland on Sunday, the bandaged hand belonged to head coach Brad Underwood.

"There was a trash can I didn't really like in the locker room,” Underwood said in his postgame press conference after the Illini’s 92-91 loss.

The Terrapins scored the game’s first 10 points and rode a 19-point lead into the break, and it was obvious Illinois head coach Brad Underwood was not satisfied.

While the coach was presumably having his hand taped in the locker room, Underwood’s team returned to the court and started doing pregame stretches and layup lines with eight minutes left on the halftime clock.

Generally, Illinois does not come back to the court until about two minutes remain on the clock.

Whatever the motivation behind the halftime layup lines was for Illinois’ staff, it seemed to work.

Illinois clawed at the deficit throughout the second half and forced overtime before a late foul call allowed Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr. to seal the game at the free throw line.

“The sun did come up Monday morning,” Underwood said at his Wednesday afternoon press conference. “But a tough couple of days to be very honest.”

Illinois, currently on a three-game losing streak, including its first two games in Big Ten conference play, will luckily get to catch its breath Wednesday night when the Illini welcome Austin Peay to the State Farm Center.

Illinois (6-3, 0-2 Big Ten), like the Maryland game, had opportunities to close out games against Wake Forest and Northwestern on the road in the past week, but it failed to do so, spoiling the Illini’s 6-0 start to Underwood’s tenure in Champaign.

“(We) very easily could be 9-0,” Underwood said. “But we're not.”

With Madison Square Garden in New York City hosting the Big Ten Tournament this year, the Big Ten Conference was forced to add a pair of conference games to each team’s December schedule. The Illini had a favorable draw with the Wildcats and Terrapins, but they dropped both matchups.

To rebound, Illinois will get a shot at the Ohio Valley Conference’s Austin Peay Governors. Illinois already beat the OVC’s Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks this regular season, 77-74.

The Governors lost leading scorer John Murry to graduation after last season, and first-year head coach Matt Figger is still searching for scoring threats. Taylor Terry, who stands at 6-foot-5, is currently Austin Peay’s top scoring threat with 12.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

The focus Wednesday night for Illinois, however, will be to see freshman guard Mark Smith again show the promise he exhibited early on in the season.

Smith, the 2017 Mr. Illinois Basketball, averaged 13.8 points and totaled 24 trips to the free throw line over his first five career games.

He has struggled since Illinois’ win over N.C. Central on Nov. 27. In the four games since, Smith has 13 total points and four trips to the free throw line, and he was stuck on the bench due to foul trouble against Northwestern and Maryland (24 total minutes of playing time).

Underwood says he is not concerned about Smith’s struggles as of late.

“I understand freshmen are freshmen,” Underwood said. “But I don't worry about Mark (Smith). He is especially the last guy I worry about on the offensive end.”

As Smith scuffles on offense, freshman guard Trent Frazier is beginning to showcase the skills that former Illinois head coach John Groce saw when Frazier was being recruited.

A native of Wellington, Florida, Frazier notched career-highs with 11 points and 28 minutes against the Terrapins. His seven assists were also the most in a single game by any Illini this season.

Frazier’s quickness and ability to drive to the hoop made him a difficult player to stop Sunday night.

Underwood praises Frazier for his in-game maneuvers, but also for the way he has handled himself off of the court.

“Trent's been exceptional — not good — but exceptional in practice,” Underwood said. “His shiftiness and speed changed the momentum of that game.”

Underwood’s Oklahoma State team started Big 12 play with six losses last season, and it still went on to make the NCAA tournament.

The season is not over for Illinois, but improvements — and a win — need to be seen against the Governors on Wednesday.