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Illinois escapes over Indiana with first Big Ten win of 2018

It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Trent Frazier and Leron Black combined for 39 points to give Illinois its first Big Ten win of the season, defeating Indiana, 73-71.

Illinois managed to get two more players in double-digit scoring as Te’Jon Lucas added 11 points off the bench, while Kipper Nichols also had another strong night with 12 points.

Juwan Morgan had a monstrous game, scoring 28 points and collecting eight rebounds. Only one other Hoosier managed to score over 10 points.

After trailing by as many as seven with under a minute to go, Indiana made a small comeback to cut the game to within three and give everyone in the State Farm Center flashbacks of the Maryland game where the Illini blew the lead late.

But smarter decision-making and tight defense helped the Illini finally put a “1” up in the conference win column.

“It feels good man,” Frazier said. “It actually shows we’re becoming a true team, our identity, what coach Underwood was talking about. We’re finally building that culture.”

Underwood seems to have found his new go-to lineup

The Illini didn’t quite get the start they were wanting against the Hoosiers, getting outrebounded 6-0 early. An immediate line change ensued as the full bench mob checked into the game for Illinois.

To start the second half, Underwood crafted a brand new lineup to combat the Hoosiers. The lineup was composed of Frazier, Lucas, Nichols, Black and Michael Finke, and they went on a 6-0 run got the Illini to within two of the Hoosiers.

A 13-2 run at the midstages of the half by this lineup gave them their first lead of the game and a 58-53 advantage.

“You got to create space,” Underwood said. “I was looking for space all night for Trent (Frazier) and we haven’t been getting a lot that... I thought Te’Jon defensively was great and he gives a secondary ball handler, got the ball out of Trent’s hands a little bit.”

This run got its exclamation point when Frazier buried his head, drove to his right and finished strong with the left hand.

This officially gave Illinois its first lead of game and got the fans at the State Farm Center to their feet, along with an “ILL” chant that could more than likely be heard from the north endzone at Memorial Stadium.

The Hoosiers never seemed go away, however, remaining in striking distance for a remainder of the game. But one Illini possession seemed to knock the wind out of them.

Superb ball movement will do that to a team as Frazier drove baseline, drawing in the defense in the process. He proceeded to kick the ball out to Lucas in the corner, who then proceeded to make the beautiful extra pass to Nichols at the top of the key, who then buried the three.

The shot forced an immediate Indiana timeout as the shot felt like a dagger to Archie Miler’s team’s morale, in the process, giving Illinois fans another reason to rise to their feet. The Illini held a 69-63 lead with under two minutes remaining.

“Big time,” Nichols said. “Anytime you can be in a situation like that and step up for your team is always good.”

Being in the bonus for roughly 15 minutes sure helps

Trailing 38-32 at half, Illinois had attempted only two shots from the charity stripe. Indiana had eight.

But come the second half and the new lineup, the Illini would finish with 32 free attempts, hitting 23 of them.

What happened? Well getting into the bonus with roughly 15 minutes remaining in the game surely helped. More importantly, the spacing and aggressiveness this lineup brought forced the issue for the Hoosiers, who seemed to be a step behind during this stretch.

“We had space,” Underwood said. “That’s all we were trying to create. It’s not been a big secret that we haven’t made threes from our perimeter players... Once we were able to create a little space, we were able to drive it.”

It didn’t take much longer for Illinois to get in the double bonus, which helped tremendously when they went on a seemingly everlasting field goal drought. To compensate, the Illini went to the free throw line, scoring eight straight points during the drought to help close out the game.

What’s next?

Illinois will finish this three-game homestand Tuesday when it hosts the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Illinois (11-11, 1-8 Big Ten) will be looking to make it two straight conference wins in a row.

“I’m extremely happy for those guys in the locker room,” Underwood said. “They persevered through some very very “interesting” times and I think it’s apart of the process.”