LINCOLN, Neb. — The Illini’s season has been riddled with inconsistencies and effort problems, but after the big win against Wisconsin featured a rejuvenated Illinois squad, Tuesday night was more of the same.
Highlighted by Terrence Shannon Jr.’s 25 points and 11 rebounds, excellent ball movement and stout defense led Illinois to a 76-50 win over Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.
Despite a much improved offensive scheme and great looks, the Illini (11-5, 2-3 Big Ten) had an ugly offensive start. They shot 4-of-16 from beyond the arc in the first half, but Shannon’s 17 points and a stout Illinois defense resulted in a 34-23 halftime lead.
Teams with great offensive movement eventually get rewarded with results, and after not seeing them in the first half, Illinois kept working. Continued aggressive and unselfish play was highlighted by an offensive rebounding barrage (13 total), and as a result, Illinois’ shooting percentage skyrocketed out of the locker room.
Nebraska (9-8, 2-4 Big Ten) made multiple runs in the second half to threaten the lead, but contributions from every Illini made each of them relatively short-lived.
Illinois jumped out to a commanding 55-35 lead at the 11-minute mark, but Wilhelm Breidenbach’s sudden emergence gave the Huskers life. He scored all his 11 points in a 14-4 run to cut the deficit to 10 with just over six minutes left.
An Illini team of weeks past may have folded at this point, but not anymore. Brad Underwood’s team controlled every aspect of the final 6 minutes, as a 17-1 run put the game away.
Illinois’ offensive problems in the past few weeks were exhibited by selfish play, but that changed in a big way in Lincoln. The Illini had 14 assists on 28 made field goals in the game, and players like Coleman Hawkins (5 assists) and Shannon (4 assists) led the way.
There were ballhawks all over the floor for Illinois, as the team recorded 7 blocks and 12 steals. Many of the Illini made other extra effort plays that don’t show up on stat sheets.
One of these guys was Ty Rodgers. In only 16 minutes, Rodgers was all over the place, grabbing 7 boards (4 offensive) and diving onto the court for loose balls. His effort showed in his +18 plus/minus.
Other players made big impacts as well. RJ Melendez reached double digits for the first time since early December, and both Hawkins (12 points) and Jayden Epps (11 points) were additional forces on the offensive end.
The Illini have incredibly skilled players, and when they play together as a team, they look unbeatable. Unfortunately for Nebraska, one of those instances was Tuesday.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
FOUL TROUBLE: Derrick Walker was Nebraska’s leading scorer coming into the game, but a second foul at the 11-minute mark caused Walker to be held out the rest of the half. Before leaving the court, Walker had no points and only attempted two shots. His absence allowed Illinois to build a double-digit lead by halftime.
GARY INJURY: Nebraska forward Juwan Gary had 3 points before being forced out of the game late in the first half with an apparent shoulder injury. An almost 10 points per game scorer, Gary did not return.
RUN STOPPERS: Nebraska went on a quick 6-0 run to start the second half to pull within 5, but a Hawkins three halted it in its tracks. The three was part of a 15-2 run that allowed Illinois to take complete control of the game.
After the 14-4 Nebraska run got the lead down to 10, Melendez made the biggest play of his night, cleaning up a missed three with a put-back layup to quiet the Husker crowd. From there, the rest of the game was summarized by three letters: I-L-L.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Coleman Hawkins, HOW DO YOU DO???
Locker room problems? I don’t think so.
RJ is showing some signs of life at the right time.
#illini RJ Melendez's first double-digit scoring performance since Dec. 2 at Maryland.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) January 11, 2023
Effort on the glass gets him. his last 2 to give Illinois a 61-49 lead with five minutes left.
Keep building on it.
The win tonight gives Illinois its first back-to-back wins since November.— Noah Cowell (@cowell_noah) January 11, 2023
Are the #Illini peaking at the right time?
TWEET OF THE GAME
Ain’t this the truth.
This. Play like THIS the rest of the season.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) January 11, 2023
And EVERYTHING this team wants to achieve is still in front of them
Illinois rides back-to-back wins back to Champaign against Michigan State on Friday.
Game is at 8 p.m. on FS1.