CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On Friday night, Illini fans packed themselves inside State Farm Center for the first time since the court was stormed nearly 8 months ago.
The feel of that Big Ten-clinching win wasn’t quite matched, but Illinois fought off early struggles to toughen out an 87-52 victory over Division II Quincy.
“It was shaky at first,” Hawkins said. “The ball feels a little different when there’s a crowd there.”
From the very tip, Illinois looked sloppy. Turning the ball over four times and only managing two made field goals in the first 5:30, they found themselves trailing 11-6.
An 11-0 run gave Illinois its biggest lead at 6, and from there it didn’t get any closer. However, it didn’t feel like the game ever got out of reach for Quincy.
With 10 turnovers and 1-for-13 shooting from behind the arc, Illinois went into half only up 34-24.
“(We) played so fast the first half that it was ugly,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “Most exhibition games are.”
Exhibition matches give teams the chance to work out a few kinks before the official start to the season. For the Illini, this opportunity proved to be more useful than most people expected.
Luke Goode’s injury last Saturday left Illinois with two remaining players who saw significant playing time a year ago: Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez.
As expected, both guys stepped up. Hawkins recorded 15 points and 12 boards, and Melendez added another 15 points to lead Illinois to the 35-point win.
But this score wasn’t indicative of how the game transpired.
The only thing keeping the Illini ahead were 8 steals (from 15 Quincy turnovers) that led to 12 fast-break points.
In the initial minutes of the second half, it looked like Quincy wasn’t going to give in. The heavy underdogs cut the lead to 36-28 at the 18-minute mark.
Zio Richardson and Isaiah Ford combined for 28 points to keep the Hawks within striking distance. State Farm Center was taken from explosive roars to nervous chatter.
Don’t worry, Illini fans. It gets better.
Skyy Clark came in as one of the highest recuits in Illinois history, and up until 28 seconds left in the first half, he had not attempted a shot.
Once he weaved through the Quincy defense for his first bucket of the game, Clark kept looking to score. His 9 points in the second half gave him 11 on the game, complemented by an 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
“He’s a pretty good player,” Underwood said. “I was very impressed with his performance tonight.”
Although the stat sheet may not show it, fellow freshman Sencire Harris made a difference in the second half as well. Along with two steals, his plus-minus was a team-high +24 in only 13 minutes played.
“(Harris) had an aggression to him on the defensive side,” Underwood said. “He did a very nice job of changing the momentum.”
In the last 15 minutes of the game, Illinois took control of the turnover battle and the offensive glass. The Illini outscored Quincy 41-19, cutting into passing lanes and flying high for offensive rebounds. From there, they were able to send the Illini faithful home relieved.
Underwood spent most of his time after the game reflecting on what needs to improve. One thing stood out to him over everything else.
“We have a saying: ‘Quiet teams lose,’” Underwood said. “Communication is vital on the defensive end.”
As expected, he is far from satisfied.
“We had too many in-game lapses,” Underwood said. “I’m glad we’ve got 9 days.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
- After going down 11-6 early, a Terence Shannon block led to an alley-oop dunk to RJ Melendez. This fast-break dunk was the start of an 11-0 run to give the Illini a 17-11 lead.
- Illinois only led 44-33 with 15:47 left, but it was the closest Quincy would get for the rest of the game. The Illini defense locked down the Hawks, holding them scoreless for the next 6 minutes. From the drought, Underwood’s team took a 25-point lead and cruised the rest of the way.
- The Illinois bench provided a nice contribution. Dain Dainja added 8 points and 5 rebounds (4 offensive) and Ty Rodgers added 7 points and 9 rebounds.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Terence Shannon. Wow.
The best offense is a good defense.
- Illinois outscored Quincy 52-12 in points in the paint and 29-9 in second-chance points. These drastic differences played a crucial part in the win.
- The turnover problem was relevant for both teams, combining for 39 turnovers (25 for Quincy). Despite 14 on the Illini side, they outscored the Hawks 32-10 off turnovers.
- Sincere Harris fouled out of the game in the second half, and he and Ty Rodgers combined for 9 fouls. The remainder of the team had 9 fouls total.
TWEET OF THE GAME
“This is why we play exhibition games…” https://t.co/0bLtlpO2vN— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) October 29, 2022
The Illini play their first official game of the season back at State Farm Center.
They host Eastern Illinois on Monday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.