While it was Senior Day in Champaign, junior forward Leron Black decided that it was going to be his afternoon.
Black dominated from start to finish, and his 28 points and seven rebounds propelled Illinois to a 72-66 victory over Nebraska.
Black shot 11-of-18 from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
“I was able to knock down some threes tonight, so that’s what really got me going,” Black said. “Teammates were finding me in all the right spots so there was a lot of open shots.”
The win ended a four-game losing streak for the Illini while also giving them their third conference win of the season.
Black got help from sophomore forward Kipper Nichols (12 points and seven rebounds). Freshman Trent Frazier also tallied 12 points and sank 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
At halftime, Illinois held a 43-36 advantage and was on fire.
The team shot 62.1 percent from the field and shot an even more impressive 77.8 percent from beyond-the-arc.
Black and Nichols combined for 29 first half points to push the issue for the Illini.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said last week that if it was up to him, he would eliminate halftimes, and early in the second half added to his argument.
“The first half was a lot of fun, the second half became pretty painful at times,” Underwood said.
Once again for Illinois, it came out flat after the break, allowing Nebraska to quickly jump back into the game while going on two separate scoring droughts. Illinois opened the half with a four-minute scoring drought, and the Illini had another of roughly five minutes later on.
The Huskers went on a 16-4 run to acquire a 52-47 lead with 14:04 remaining in the game.
The Huskers threw a zone defense at the Illini that gave the home team fits during the stretch, but Illinois made the right adjustments to overcome it.
“Us just attacking the gaps and moving the ball around helped us out a lot,” Frazier said. “Offensive rebounding also to help get second shots.”
Sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas seemed to lead this charge against the zone. Lucas attacked the zone to get his offense going.
“Insert Te’Jon, and he starts driving the thing,” Underwood said. “It sucked the defense in and they had to start accounting for him. Gave us an opportunity to do a few things.”
Lucas finished with only two points, but also contributed six assists and four rebounds off the bench.
Of course, it would be Black who would end the 16-4 run as his pure mid-range jumper bailed the Illini out. Black, the following possession, would make another jumper to cut the deficit to two.
Freshman Mark Smith — the man who has been struggling all season for Illinois — then hit the go ahead three-pointer to reclaim the lead for his team.
When the Huskers responded with a three of their own on the other end, Smith answered by drawing two defenders and finding Frazier wide open in the corner, who buried the shot to take the lead.
Smith wasn’t done scoring either. A strong drive to the rim allowed him to get two points and draw the foul, tying the game at 61.
Smith finished with eight points and three assists off the bench.
“Mark’s a good player, and I may believe in him more than he believes in himself,” Underwood said. “He’s had good practices, he’s worked hard... I believe Mark (Smith) is going to have a terrific end of the season because he’s practiced good.”
And then it was back to Black to close the game.
The Memphis native scored seven straight points for Illinois, followed by Frazier’s free throws to close out the game.
The win was a huge one for Illinois, but not one that Underwood said he can dwell on. He has to prepare his team to head up to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday.
But, nonetheless, Underwood is happy for his guys in the locker room.
“We get to head to Michigan State on a feel good note,” Underwood said. “I’m proud of this team because of the resiliency and when they went on a 16-4 run, took the lead, it could’ve been ‘okay, here we go again’, and this team started to show that fight.”