CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the first time in nearly eight months, Illinois took the State Farm Center floor in front of a sea of orange and blue.
Unlike the last time — a double-overtime thriller that saw the Illini top Michigan — the stakes were low. Regardless, the Illini’s 116-65 victory Friday over NAIA Ottawa marks the unofficial return of college basketball.
From the first possession, Illinois was in firm control. The Illini stormed out to a 19-4 lead at the first media timeout and from there, the result of the game was never in doubt.
A red-hot half that featured 62% shooting from the floor and 41% from three-point range allowed Illinois to gradually build its lead to 29 heading into the break.
The biggest story of the offseason was Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins deciding to forego the NBA Draft and return to Champaign for another season. They each showed why their returns are so important on Friday night.
Shannon proved why he’s worthy of preseason first team All-Big Ten honors, attacking the rim at will and scoring a game-high 18 points.
Hawkins was impactful on both ends, finishing with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 steals.
The second half brought an equal level of dominance, as the Braves had no answers for the Illini’s overwhelming size, speed and athleticism.
Brad Underwood touted the depth of his roster on multiple occasions leading into the season. That depth showed up in this game, with ten different scholarship players finding the scoring column.
Friday was the first chance for Illini fans to see their new squad in action, one with a handful of unfamiliar names.
Two of the new faces who impressed? A pair of transfers Marcus Domask and Justin Harmon. Domask was seemingly everywhere, stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of 8 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, and Harmon added an efficient 11 points of his own on 3-for-4 shooting.
The Illini’s two-man freshman class was also a major bright spot.
Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn was one of the most explosive players on the court, tallying 15 points and adding 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Amani Hansberry was all over the glass, finishing with a double-double: 14 points and 12 rebounds.
It wasn’t perfect. Brad Underwood will surely have his fair share of complaints, especially on the defensive end. But the Illini showcased their depth, firepower and newfound chemistry against Ottawa and after waiting 232 days, Illini fans can finally celebrate a victory.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Dain Dainja with the HAMMER.
Terrence Shannon oop to Dain Dainja pic.twitter.com/EfXujf2Ayq— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) October 21, 2023
How about another one, this time from two newcomers.
CRAZY athleticism from the freshman.
- It was a tale of two halves from the three-point line for Illinois. After a 7-for-17 (41.2%) first half, they shot just 7-for-25 (28%) in the second half.
- As expected against an NAIA program, Illinois dominated the glass. The Illini outrebounded the Braves 59-22.
- Free throws continue to be a concern. 12-for-22 from the charity stripe won’t cut it in the regular season.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Sorry, -55.5 bettors.
19-4 Illini. Timeout Ottawa.— Derek Piper (@DPiper247) October 21, 2023
Shannon to the rack for two & then he threw a lob to Dain Dainja for a fastbreak oop.
If you took Illinois -55.5 at @ktausk13 & I's sportsbook, you're encouraged by those first five mins.
The Illini welcome the country’s preseason No. 1 team to Champaign. Illinois will battle Kansas in a charity exhibition game benefitting wildfire relief efforts in Maui.
Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. on BTN.