Let’s all just take a moment, because we finally got that game. It was a long time coming, so be happy for now. But we also need to be honest with ourselves, because the Illini almost gave this one away like they have already done several times this year. Here are some grades:
Oh my God, I was so irritated the first 12 minutes of the game. It seemed like the offense wasn’t running any plays except that handoff to the guard at the elbow and the John Groce special “pass it around the perimeter until someone has to throw up a bad shot” play. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it felt like. I wouldn’t be so salty if we even had a few Big Ten wins, but coming into this one 0-8 felt helpless. In the second half, things finally turned around and some shots started to fall. Shoutout to Te’Jon, Trent, and Leron for really igniting things down the stretch. Kipper had some important moments in the second half as well.
Juwan Morgan had his way, especially in the first half. He pushed around the smaller Illinois lineup for quite a bit of the game until he got into foul trouble. When Michael Finke plays your 5, this is going to happen a lot. Plain and simple.
2nd half start: A
I just can’t figure out when this team is good on offense and plays with high energy on defense. I guess all I can say it that it is inconsistency. Still, a 6-0 run to begin the second half was big: it immediately brought the crowd back into the game, and out the Illini right back in it.
Te’Jon Lucas: A
Underwood said it best: “Te’Jon gave us a great spark defensively.” Lucas was excellent on the night as a whole, scoring 11 points on the night and really locking down on defense. After missing some games with a suspension for violation of team rules, it was nice to see him bounce back. Even better to see him have an impact on both ends of the floor.
Leron Black: A-
Leron had another great night offensively, going 7-of-12 from the field to end the night with 19 points. He’s efficient, he takes good shots, and he is physical. He still has a bit of a problem with fouling in a smart way, but he and Trent were the two big reasons this team hung around in the first half.
Underwood’s first conference win: A++
It wasn’t pretty, and downright made me jump out of my seat every few minutes of gameplay. But Brad Underwood finally got his first win in the Big Ten, which felt long overdue. As the broadcasters were saying in the postgame, this could be the game that really fuels Illinois to play better. If they can fix those late-game mistakes, they have a real shot of winning some of their remaining Big Ten games.
Note: I could have given more good grades to Trent and Kipper as well, but one can only give out so high grades. And ya hate to give a player who didn’t play well a bad grade after the first win.