CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — This team isn’t Michigan, and this isn’t the Big Ten Tournament.
Behind a 25-point first-half lead, Illinois took care of business on Saturday afternoon at the State Farm Center, taking down East Tennessee State, 73-55.
“There’s no doubt that was the best half we’ve played from an execution standpoint,” said Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood. “Pretty good feeling to go into the locker room after the game, know you’ve earned it, and know you’ve played well... We need that. We need [the players] to experience that confidence.”
The Buccaneers (8-4) haven’t even been in Champaign for 12 hours, and they’re about to board the bus home with a loss. After all sorts of travel issues yesterday, including delayed flights, switching flights, lost luggage, and a broken down bus, ETSU finally pulled into Champaign around 4 a.m. for the game this afternoon.
“No excuse for the travel, [the players] are young,” said ETSU Head Coach Steve Forbes. “It was probably harder on the coaches... It was a little bizarre. It felt like I was back in my JUCO days.
“I think Brad [Underwood] had something to do with it,” Forbes joked as the Illinois coach made his way into the postgame press conference.
The Illini (4-7, 0-2 Big Ten) have heard this story before, and last time, it didn’t work out so well. Back in 2017, Michigan’s flight to the conference tournament was put on hold after the plane nearly slipped off the runway. The Wolverines were forced to wear practice uniforms against Illinois, but it didn’t phase them a bit. Michigan would go on to thrash the Illini in John Groce’s last game as head coach at Illinois, 75-55.
But Illinois busted this one open and in a hurry. After back-to-back turnovers to start the game, the Illini found their groove, racing out to an early 29-5 lead.
After a quiet outing against UNLV last weekend, Trent Frazier came alive against ETSU in a big way. The sophomore matched the Buccaneers’ first-half point total with 18 on 5-of-7 shooting from behind the arc to go along with four assists.
Meanwhile, the turnover bug and poor shooting fell hard on the Buccaneers. With a stretch of almost 12 minutes without a field goal, ETSU dug itself a deep hole heading into half.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt [we took a step today],” Underwood said. “We came out with a lot of positives. We guarded the first half, we were dialed in, and we didn’t give [ETSU] any good looks. We forced those turnovers.”
The Buccaneers responded with a 7-0 run to open things up after the break, but the Illini countered with back-to-back treys from Da’Monte Williams and Frazier, and suddenly, the lead was greater than 20 again. ETSU turned to the three-quarter court press in the second half and found some success. The Buccaneers forced some easy turnovers and were able to cut the deficit to 15, but that would be as close as things got.
“[Illinois] doesn’t play like most teams,” Forbes said. “They deny, deny, deny. Their record isn’t indicative of who they truly are.”
Frazier would finish the day with a game-high 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the floor, including 6-of-9 from deep, five assists, and a rebound. Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kipper Nichols would also finish in double figures with 15 and 14, respectively.
“Like [Coach Underwood] said, I got going early,” Frazier said. “I was hot from three, and I just tried to get my teammates involved after that.”
Why no Ayo?
Illinois’ best recruit in almost a decade, Ayo Dosunmu, didn’t see the floor on Saturday afternoon because he was late to shootaround Saturday morning, per the Illini Radio Network.
Dosunmu tweeted after the game, taking full responsibility for his actions, saying, “It won’t happen again!”
As a leader, I understand the importance of team rules. I accept responsibility & the consequences for being late this morning. I made a mistake, and I’ll grow from it. Sorry for letting my team & #Illini fans down. It won’t happen again!— Mr WhyNotMe (@AyoDos_11) December 15, 2018
Freshman Alan Griffin was also part of the group that was late, so he was also kept out.
Freshman forward Tevian Jones missed the game and remains suspended.
MOMENTS THAT MATTER
- Midway through the first half, Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams and ETSU’s Isaiah Tisdale got tangled up after going for a loose ball. The two had to be separated from each other, and Tisdale was assessed a Flagrant II, disqualifying him from the rest of the contest.
HE SAID IT
“It’s a historic rivalry. Every time we go up against them, it’s competitive.” — Kipper Nichols, on upcoming Braggin’ Rights game.
Illinois gets another week off before the team travels down to St. Louis for its annual Braggin’ Rights matchup with Missouri. The Illini are winners of the last five straight, and there has been a lot of drama between the two teams recently.
Big games from Trent Frazier and Leron Black gave Illinois its biggest win last season at what was known as the Scottrade Center, now the Enterprise Center.
The Tigers are 6-3 on the season and winners of five of their last seven. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. CT next Saturday.
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