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Illinois struggles late in loss to No. 16 Virginia

The Illini drop their first game of the season.

Twitter: @IlliniMBB

LAS VEGAS — Ahh, so close again.

No. 19 Illinois came in following an upset of No. 8 UCLA, but its perfect start to the season was halted Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena in the Continental Tire Main Event Championship, losing to No. 16 Virginia 70-61.

The weekend-long tournament, which featured four top-20 teams, tested the new-look Illini (4-1) to the brim. Unfortunately, they just did not do enough to come up on top.

In what we figured would be a back-and-forth affair, this title game did not disappoint. Up only two points at halftime, the Illini were playing from behind in most of the second half. Freshman guard Jayden Epps and forward Coleman Hawkins gave the Illini super important second-half contributions, but a late 13-0 Cavalier run was what ultimately put them ahead.

Epps looked to be the difference maker the Illini needed, going for 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting, featuring two HUGE three-pointers in the second half. Hawkins had his fair share of clutch baskets as well, scoring 10 points (included two second-half three-pointers).

We saw Hawkins go off against Eastern Illinois in the first game of the season, but since then we were wondering when we’d see him play like that again. He did Sunday, but his contributions could not get the job done for the Illini. All of his 10 points were scored in the second half, but could not deliver any more late.

On Friday against the Bruins, it was transfer guard Terrence Shannon Jr. lighting it up (29 points, 8 three-pointers), but he got off to a slow start against Virginia (4-0), taking 12 minutes to get his first bucket. He finished with 9 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds.

Illinois’ defense also stepped up against the Cavs, usually stingy on that end of the court themselves. The Illini held UVA to just 37% shooting in the first half and to a season-low 70 points.

At least football still beat Virginia earlier this year.


HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: Did you see the fans all weekend long? UCLA and Baylor fans were hard to find, and the sea of orange and blue at T-Mobile Arena on Sunday was Illini O&B, not UVA. You can’t tell me that didn’t make a difference for the guys this weekend.

Just look at these guys.

FRESHMAN IMPACT: These guys were the big difference in the trip to Vegas. In Friday night’s win, the Illini had their backs against the walls at halftime, but Sincere Harris came in and, in the words of Fran Fraschilla, was a “pest” on defense. Jayden Epps — as we mention above — was a huge influence off the bench like he has been all season, especially in this one today.


Jayden Epps with the Andre Curbelo impression weaving through traffic and finishing at the rim.



Obviously, what happened on the court this weekend for the Cavaliers has taken a backseat to what happened a week ago Sunday in Charlottesville — three current UVA football players were killed and two others (including another current player) were injured in a shooting.

The university has set up a UVA Strong Fund to support the community in these trying times. You can find a link to donate here.


Illinois returns to State Farm Center this Friday night against new Division I member Lindenwood (Missouri).

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. on BTN+.