On the night Illinois great Deron Williams watched from his courtside seat in the State Farm Center, the Illini put on the show for the three-time NBA All-Star.
The Illini played a complete 40 minutes of basketball, holding the lead for a majority of the game and winning 91-60.
Sophomore forward Kipper Nichols got his first start of the season and gave head coach Brad Underwood a few reasons to keep him there, scoring a game-high 19 points and collecting six rebounds.
“Coach talked about coming out and fighting no matter if it’s practice or the games,” Nichols said. “I think that’s been my approach.”
All five of Illinois’ starters broke double-digit scoring, most notably freshman guard Trent Frazier, who added 17 points and four assists.
Rutgers guard Corey Sanders led his team in scoring with 19 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Illinois (12-11, 2-8 Big Ten) did it on both ends in the game, forcing a season-high 25 turnovers and scoring 37 points off those turnovers.
“Those attention to detail things have a huge impact,” Underwood said. “It’s about playing the game the right way.”
The Illini shot a season-high 56.9 percent from the field, aided by a 63.3 percent mark in the second half.
Trent Frazier’s First-Half Spectacular
For a first half filled with a combined 25 turnovers, the game looked like it might be a brutal one to watch, until Frazier happened.
Like the instant offense he has become, Frazier scored 15 first-half points, all of which came from beyond-the-arc.
“It’s my teammates, they continue to look for me down the stretch when I’m hot,” Frazier said. “Coach just telling me to shoot the ball when I make shots, so I just keep doing that.”
Frazier scored nine straight points during one first-half stretch for the Illini, which was highlighted with a deadly crossover on a ball screen, followed by him rising up and getting the friendly bounce off the rim.
“Midway through the first half, Trent just went bonkers I guess,” Underwood said. “That was fun to watch, but he’s capable of that.”
By the time the stretch was over, Frazier had put his team up 32-16 on the Scarlet Knights, en route to a 44-22 halftime advantage.
Illinois shot the ball well in the first half, going 14-of-28 from the field and 7-of-18 from deep. Senior guard Mark Alstork and Nichols both put in solid first halves with 9 and 8 points, respectively.
Killer instinct finally kicking in for Illinois
The Illini had been in this position before heading into the second half earlier in January. Illinois led the Iowa Hawkeyes by 20 points at one point in the first half and maintained a double-digit lead at break. But the Hawkeyes fault back in the second half and took the game in overtime.
The lack of a killer instinct going into the second frame was obvious in that game, but a different story played out against Rutgers on Tuesday.
“I’m not a guy that believes it’s 0-0 coming out of the half, that’s one of the most false statements and it’s not true,” Underwood said. “That’s the right mentality and we did it running good offense, wasn’t tremendous pace, and we did it with tremendous defense.”
After the Scarlet Knights got the first points of the half, the Illini went on a 10-0 run that was capped off with a corner three-pointer from Black.
The bleeding for Rutgers (12-12, 2-9 Big Ten) didn’t stop there. The lead quickly reached 30 points and eventually a 40-point margin with under 10 minutes remaining.
“We’ve had a lot of heartbreakers the past few games, that’s been a common narrative for us,” Nichols said. “But heading into games and coming into the locker room before the second half, we have to keep our foot on team’s necks and execute.”
Illinois’ relentlessness was evident as the Illini continued to play their aggressive on-ball defense even with a large lead.
With just under 13 minutes remaining in the game, Te’Jon Lucas was still hounding Rutgers’ guards and forced the steal. Instead of settling with just that, Aaron Jordan took off sprinting, beating all the Scarlet Knights down the floor.
Lucas found the streaking Jordan and hit him perfectly in stride with the full-court pass. Jordan finished it off with a two-handed flush that brought the Illini fans at the State Farm Center to their feet.
Illinois’ home stretch is over for now, and the team will be traveling to Columbus, Ohio, to square off against the red-hot Ohio State Buckeyes.
Nichols said competing is what it is going to take to have this momentum carry over to their next game.
“That’s the name of the game for us,” Nichols said. “I think it’s a big part of our identity ... as long as we have a connectedness on the court between us, we can play with anybody.”