CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ugly wins are still wins, right?
Nebraska gave Illinois all it can handle, but a late push from the Orange and Blue was enough to get the win and its second consecutive series sweep, 72-56, at State Farm Center on Tuesday night.
“A night we weren’t at our best,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “I think our defense prevailed, that’s what we have to hang our hat on.”
As has been the trend over the last four games, the Illini struggled out of the gates. This time around, Illinois (16-6, 7-4 Big Ten) began 3-of-15 from the field and was being outscored or equaled by Nebraska guard Sam Griesel for over half of the first period.
Then, Illinois started the move the ball. A 14-3 run helped Illinois take the lead, and that run was powered by the bench.
Ty Rodgers entered the game and immediately made his presence felt. In the freshman’s first five minutes on the court he scored a nifty reverse layup, assisted on a fast break score and showed off his athleticism by snatching four rebounds.
“He works so hard everyday,” Underwood said. “He can handle the ball, he can rebound. I love seeing good things happen to people who work hard.”
He kept his fast start up in the second half, finishing with seven rebounds, six on the offensive glass. Rodgers finished the game +18 in +/- in just 18 minutes played.
“I just know that’s going to keep me on the court,” Rodgers said.
The second half spark came from another freshman off the bench: Sincere Harris. He scored six during a crucial 11-2 Illini run, and was flashing his speed around the court. The freshman guard also poured in two steals.
After the win, Underwood called the freshmen “good players.”
“I’m happy for them and we needed them tonight,” he said. “On a night when we weren’t our sharpest, they were.”
Illinois jockeyed with the second-worst team in the Big Ten (according to record) and left the first half with a narrow 38-37 lead. Nebraska hung tight with the Illini because it was shooting 50% from the field and better than 50% from three throughout the first half and deep into the second.
Nebraska’s sharp shooting pushed the Cornhuskers to a 9-0 run, thanks to a pair of threes from Keisei Tominaga and one from C.J. Wilcher. Nebraska (10-14, 3-9 Big Ten) took a 50-48 lead — but from that point forward it was all Illini.
Illinois in the past has looked to players like Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier to make clutch shots and close out games, but with neither player on the roster for the first time since the 2017-18 season, Illinois has needed to find a new closer.
The Illini have only had six games decided by fewer than 10 points this season, and in those contests they have looked to the likes of Terrence Shannon Jr. to put teams away. Shannon Jr. scored a basket to tie the game at 50 a piece, and assisted on the Illini’s next two baskets to create a cushion. Like Dosunmu and Frazier, Shannon set his tone defensively. The Chicago native grabbed three steals on the other end.
The Illini turned it up on both ends of the floor, thanks to the freshman duo of Harris and Rodgers — ending the game on a dominant 24-6 stretch, including forcing Nebraska into a scoring drought that lasted the final 4:28 of the game.
“[Harris and Rodgers] were huge factors in tonight’s game,” Underwood said. “Their effort and energy was through the roof, changed the game.”
The dagger came off of the right handed shooting arm of a mustached Matthew Mayer — his third three of the ballgame (the Illini only made 5-of-29) and gave Illinois a 14-point advantage. Mayer has finished as the Illini’s leading scorer in three of the last four wins.
“We’ve got good shooters,” Underwood said of the Illini’s shooting struggles. “To go 5-of-29 and win by 16? I’ll take it.”
Terrence Shannon Jr. (ILL) — 13 PTS, 5 AST, 3 STL
Mathew Mayer (ILL) — 16 PTS, 6 REB
Coleman Hawkins (ILL) — 10 PTS, 8 REB, 3 AST
Sam Griesel (NEB) — 21 PTS, 6 REB
Derrick Walker (NEB) — 8 PTS, 6 REB, 4 AST
Keisei Tominaga (NEB) — 11 PTS, 3-4 3FG
BENCH MOB — Ever since Skyy Clark temporarily left the program due to personal reasons, the Illini — who are already short at guard with Luke Goode sidelined due to an injury — were forced to thin their bench out by starting either of the freshman guards Sincere Harris or Jayden Epps. Harris started the first seven games after Clark’s departure, but it has been Epps since. Epps has scored in double figures in eight of his last 11 games — but that has left the Illini with low production off the bench. In the two games Epps has started, the Illini have scored just 11-bench points. With a spark from Ty Rodgers and Sincere Harris, Illinois scored 17 off the bench on Tuesday,
‘HAWK’EYE VISION — The Illini are at their best when Coleman Hawkins sees the floor. Coleman Hawkins has had 13 games in which he has three or more assists including tonight — and the Illini are now 11-2 in such games.
SHOOTING SLUMP — Sophomore RJ Melendez began the season shooting 13-of-36 from three. Since then, he has shot just 5-of-39. Melendez is also zero for his last 10 from deep including 0-of-3 on Tuesday.
DOUBLE TROUBLE — Mayer, Shannon Jr. and Epps reached double figures again. For Mayer it is the 12th time in his last 14 games, and Epps for the ninth time in his last 12 games. Shannon Jr. was in double figures for the ninth time in his last 11, and for the 18th time this year.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Didn’t I say “nifty reverse layup”?
Ty Rodgers is an athlete. @Ty_rodgers20 x @IlliniMBB pic.twitter.com/Qi13V1Wl8F— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 1, 2023
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Basketball was invented to look like this.
Gotta love the @IlliniMBB ball movement. pic.twitter.com/yd5LYKEiZk— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 1, 2023
TWEET OF THE GAME
It was a bad start against the Cornhuskers.
Me walking into this Tuesday night thinking this would be a comprehensive and clean Win pic.twitter.com/2SdBndh7xW— Armchair Illinois (@ArmchairIllini) February 1, 2023
HE SAID IT
“He’s one of the best freshman guards in the country.” — Brad Underwood on Jayden Epps
The Illini travel to Iowa City this weekend for a clash with the Hawkeyes. This Saturday’s game will tip off at 1:30 p.m. CT on FOX.