CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Make that two out of the last three for the Illini.
Illinois handled the Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-9, 3-8 Big Ten) behind a big game from Kipper Nichols off the bench, stellar defense, and a hot first half. The 71-64 win on Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center marks Illinois’ third conference win of the season, and second in its last three games.
“I thought, by far and away, from a defensive standpoint, that was our best game,” said Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood. “I thought we had [Nebraska] sped up. Our pressure was really, really good.”
With Ayo Dosunmu struggling to find his rhythm in the first half, Illinois (7-15, 3-8 Big Ten) got help from an unlikely hero — Kipper Nichols. The junior transfer has been virtually nonexistent for the Illini the past five games having not scored in any of those appearances, but he provided some quality, productive minutes off the bench. His 10 points (4-of-5 from the field) led all Illinois scorers in the first half, and he also pulled down three boards.
“I got some open looks,” Nichols said. “I was fortunate enough to knock them down. It felt good.”
But Nichols only played a part in Illinois’ first-half success. The Illini shot extremely well from the floor through the first 20 minutes, tallying a 6-of-14 clip from behind the arc and 47 percent from the field, giving them a 38-29 advantage heading into half. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers failed to establish any sort of momentum on the offensive end. Nebraska only converted on three of its 12 three-point attempts and 6-of-13 free throws.
“I’m really happy for Kipper,” Underwood said. “I took the approach to coach him like he wasn’t a member of our team. I just left him alone. I felt like he had a few too many people in his ear, including me. The last two days of practice, the ball started going in for him.”
In a foul-ridden second period of regulation, the Illini did just enough to hold off the Cornhuskers. Nebraska did a great job attacking the offensive glass, pulling down 21 offensive rebounds, and tallying 18 second-chance points.
Defensively, Dosunmu and the rest of the Illini played an outstanding game on James Palmer Jr., one of the best off-guards in the conference, and Glynn Watson, a talented guard himself. Even though Palmer Jr. put up 22 points, those buckets did not come easy. He shot just 6-of-20 from the floor, and Watson could only muster six points on 3-of-12 shooting before fouling out with a few minutes left to play.
“I thought [Illinois] did a good job of switching defenses,” said Nebraska Head Coach Tim Miles. “I thought [Dosunmu] did a really good job at getting into James [Palmer Jr.]”
After a dismal start to the conference season, the Illini have now won two of their last three and have a favorable second half to the Big Ten slate. With Penn State on the schedule twice to come and home matchups against Rutgers, Northwestern and Indiana, the Illini have a real shot at finishing close to .500 in the Big Ten this year.
And on how this year’s team compares to last year’s 14-18 squad, Underwood said: “We’re lightyears ahead in terms of our locker room, competitive spirit, culture, and tenacity. These guys are eager. A lot of our mistakes are youthful, inexperienced mistakes. This team is growing.”
TWEET OF THE GAME
Kipper has 10 points in the first half? pic.twitter.com/RjY4LuC4fl— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 2, 2019
Random note: Illinois is 3-0 when shooting 40% or worse from the free-throw line since 2010.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) February 2, 2019
Today vs. Nebraska
2012 vs. Georgia Tech
2012 vs. Colgate
HE SAID IT
#Illini BU: "Giorgi is so proud. He's so proud to have his brother here to get to see him play. Giorgi is so in love with this place.— Tristen Kissack (@TKissack20) February 2, 2019
His brother's first words to me were, 'Coach, it's nice to meet you, and I'm embarrassed for Giorgi's free throw shooting.'"
MOMENTS THAT MATTER
- Midway through the first half, the Illini got a much-needed spark from junior Kipper Nichols. Despite having not scored the past five games, Nichols poured in seven straight points to give Illinois a five-point advantage over the Huskers.
- In the final two minutes, Illinois shot just 4-of-12 from the free throw line, surrendering a double-digit lead.
The Illini play host to the No. 6 Michigan State Spartans (18-3, 9-1 Big Ten) on Tuesday night at the State Farm Center. The Spartans dropped their most recent matchup against Purdue, but were winners of 13 straight before that.
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.