CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Wake up and smell the coffee, college basketball is finally here.
The Kansas exhibition was a great taste of this year’s Illini, but Monday was the true start to the grind.
In a game where Illinois was 26.5-point favorites, it took them awhile to get rolling. Once they settled in though, the foot stayed on the gas pedal.
A strong second half showing — powered by 18 points from Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn — helped the Illini cruise past EIU 80-52.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The beginning of this game was not pretty at all. The orange and blue came out in slow motion, trailing 15-13 at the 10-minute mark. Missing 10 of their first 15 shots from the floor, the Illini needed a spark plug fast.
“Early, we were really flat,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “I thought we were pretty emotionless.”
It’s safe to say they found their answer. Freshman guard Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn scored six points in under a minute, capped off by his first college dunk to give the Illini their first lead of the contest.
“This week, it’s no coincidence that Dra was the best player on the court in practice,” Underwood said. “The correlation is very much evident in terms of the production.”
If this is a sign of things to come, Illinois may have already found their sixth man of the year.
After this point, Illinois didn’t look back. They would take a 37-25 lead into halftime and lead the rest of the way.
Despite the lead, the woes from behind the arc continue to haunt the orange and blue. Starting just 1-of-4 from three point range, the Illini were able to make up a little ground by drilling their final three attempts from downtown in the first period.
“Overall, I thought it was a first game win coming off a big exhibition that we didn’t handle very well,” Underwood said. “But, we found a way to win.”
TSJ picked up right where he left off in the Maui exhibition, leading all scorers at the half with 9 points and scoring 16 on the night.
He came out on fire in the second half, scoring 6 of the first 8 points for Illinois.
Shannon knows that the Illini can’t afford any more slow starts moving forward and he took full responsibility for making sure that won’t happen again in the future.
“I could’ve been better for us at the beginning, bringing us energy, it all falls back on me,” Shannon said. “I have to do a better job of leading the guys, it’ll be different against Oakland [on Friday].”
DGL made the most of his time on the court, finishing with a game high 18 points in just 20 minutes of action. His second half scoring came in another quick spurt, as he knocked down 7 straight Illini points in just over a minute’s work.
“Explosion is really not my focus, it’s just coming out, playing hard, providing for my team,” Gibbs-Lawhorn said. “Making sure my team gets the win at the end of the day, whether that’s me cheering on the bench or being on the court.”
With Gibbs-Lawhorn finding such quick success after his quiet Kansas exhibition, coach Underwood had some playful, but high praise for the freshman guard.
“I’m going to be careful with Dravyn in terms of how much I want to compliment him, because I don’t want him to read it and actually think its true,” Underwood said. “He’s a gifted scorer, he can really score at all levels.”
As a whole though, things didn’t get much better from behind the arc in the last 20 minutes for the Illini, as they shot just 6-of-15.
On the other hand, things did improve from the free throw line with the orange and blue shooting 9-of-13 from the line after the break.
Coleman Hawkins had a quiet night, with just 14 minutes on the court and 0-of-2 from the field, the senior forward struggled on the defensive side of the ball as well. Despite this, coach Underwood is still confident in Hawkins moving forward.
“I watched him last year against Zach Edey, I’m really comfortable with Coleman guarding anybody when Coleman wants to guard everybody and do it the right way,” he said. “So, I’m pretty good with Coleman.”
In the first real action of the year, there was bound to be a little rust coming out of the gate. But if Illinois continues to look how they did in the second half, the ceiling on this year’s team could be one of the highest in recent memory.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Quincy Guerrier with the ankle breaker.
Gibbs-Lawhorn was all over the court in his first collegiate game.
Game one of the season turned into the DGL show.
- The Illini were abysmal from behind the arc and the charity stripe, shooting 4-of-17 from three point range and 3-of-10 from the line in the first half alone. Let’s hope old habits die hard in 2023-24.
- Illinois flexed its depth in its first regular season action, outscoring EIU 47 to 20 off the bench.
- The orange and blue put on the clamps down the stretch, holding the Panthers to just 27 points in the second half on 8-of-31 shooting.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Oh, college basketball, how we’ve missed you.
alrighty, y'all ready to get unnecessarily frustrated for the next four months, all for it to come down to a two-week stretch in march?— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 7, 2023
Illinois will look to keep its season perfect this Friday as they host Oakland.
Tipoff will be at 7 p.m. and you can stream it on BTN+.