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Illinois survives against UNLV, 77-74

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The win snaps a 3-game losing streak.

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

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There’s the first big win of the day. Now, it’s your turn volleyball.

The Illini were able to hang on to defeat UNLV, 77-74, and snap their 3-game losing streak. The win came in front of a sparse crowd at the State Farm Center on Saturday afternoon, but that’s because over 4,000 Illini faithful were two blocks down the road at Huff Hall where their volleyball team was looking to punch its ticket to the Final Four.

“We found a way,” said Head Coach Brad Underwood. “We got it in the left hand column... Today was big. That was an excited locker room.”

Illinois (3-7, 0-2) needed this win in the worst way. After being competitive in almost all its losses this season, the team was finally able to come out on the right side of a nail-biter. Now, the Illini have a chance to start a different streak. Their final three non-conference games are all winnable, including the annual Braggin’ Rights with Missouri, but the most important takeaway from today’s game is that the team was able to get some productive minutes from a big not named Giorgi.

“I’m really proud of [Samba Kane],” Underwood said. “We saw a little bit of what he can do and grow into... He gives us rim protection, a runner. We feel comfortable with him finishing. I will say I was shocked as heck when he faked the hand-off and got to the rim... [The finger wag] was big time.”

Freshman center Samba Kane stole the show in the first half. After playing just 15 minutes his entire career, the 7-footer recorded eight points, including a couple monster slams, and even busted out the patented Dikembe Mutombo finger wag after a huge block. As the first man off the bench, Kane’s spark jump-started a slow start to the afternoon. But a sloppy end to the half let the Runnin’ Rebels (4-4) hang around, and the Illini took just a 6-point lead heading into the break.

For one of the few times this season, Illinois picked up in the second half right where they left off. The guard play of Andres Feliz, Ayo Dosunmu, and Trent Frazier combined for 37 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists. Behind some solid backcourt play and Kane’s coming out party, the Illini started to break this one open, even extending their lead to 13 points at one point in the second. But, the Runnin’ Rebels weren’t going to go down without a fight. They were able to cut the deficit to two in the final 15 seconds, but it was Giorgi Bezhanishvili who knocked down a pair of free throws late to seal the deal.

“Samba was the MVP today,” said junior Kipper Nichols. “He stepped up in a major way. We’ve known what he can do since day one... His ceiling is very high. Expect a lot out of Samba Kane in the future.”

SOUND SMART

TWEET OF THE GAME

WHO’S NEXT

The Illini get a week long break until they host East Tennessee State next Saturday at State Farm Center.

The Buccaneers (7-3) played Creighton close earlier this year and shouldn’t be considered an easy win.

Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. CT.