It was a day at the Beech for North Florida as Ospreys roll Illini men’s basketball


Malcolm Hill takes a jump shot during the game against Northern Florida at Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

Illinois was never really in this one.

North Florida’s Dallas Moore opened the festivities soon after the opening tip with a quick three-pointer, which was just the beginning of an all-out scoring barrage from the Ospreys. North Florida kept the Illini at a double-digit distance for most of the game, cruising to a 93-81 victory in the first contest of the season for both teams.

Moore finished with 26 points and 10 assists, but it was Beau Beech who put together a more impressive showing for North Florida. The 6-foot-8 senior drained seven threes and only missed one, making longballs look like layups as he hung 25 points on the Illini.

Beech showed off an effortless stroke, pulling up well beyond the arc on most of his buckets. When Illinois started to make a run at the beginning of the second half, Beech silenced the Prairie Capital Convention Center crowd with a pair of threes and an assist that left Illini defenders in quicksand. His performance recalled flashbacks of Michigan’s Nik Stauskas putting on a similar show at State Farm Center two seasons ago.

Everyone — Illinois coaches, players, fans and media — knew that the Illini would have to shut down Moore and Beech to beat North Florida. They didn’t and paid for it. But the Ospreys’ supporting cast stepped up as well. Trent Mackey finished with 13 points, and so did Demarcus Daniels. The Illini couldn’t afford to help off Beech and Moore too much, because they were getting burned from nearly everywhere else on the court.

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North Florida was 17 of 33 from three-point distance on the night. I mean, come on. That’s insane. They were unconscious from deep.

Moore and Beech rolled into Springfield with confidence, played with confidence and delivered their press conference remarks with a confidence that would be annoying if they didn’t command your respect with that performance. Which they did.

For the Illini and head coach John Groce, everything about opening night was a disaster. Yes they suffered the program’s first opening game loss since 1999, but the bigger blow was the loss of point guard Jaylon Tate. He suffered an open dislocation of a finger on his right hand in the first half as he was fouled on a layup attempt and returned to Champaign before the game concluded for further evaluation.

The last thing this team could afford was more injuries. Tracy Abrams is out with an Achilles tear and isn’t coming back this season. Kendrick Nunn won’t be back for at least a few weeks. Sophomore forward Leron Black was a game-time decision to return from a meniscus tear, but he was glued to the bench in his jumpsuit.

A depleted Illini roster got even shallower, and it showed. Guys were out of position on defense, leaving the back door open and closing out late on North Florida’s red-hot shooters on the perimeter.

The Illinois defense gave up 93 points, which simply shouldn’t happen. Not against North Carolina, not against North Florida, not against anybody.

The offensive attack wasn’t much better, except for Mike Thorne Jr.’s grown man performance on the block. Thorne muscled his way to 25 points and 14 rebounds in the post, where the Ospreys had no answer. Unfortunately for Illinois, Hill’s added 20 on 17 shots and freshman Aaron Jordan’s 14 points weren’t enough to make North Florida sweat.

The only time the Ospreys even hinted at discomfort came with about seven minutes left in the game, after the Illini cut their deficit to nine on a thunderous Thorne slam. The Springfield crowd of 5,186 had been silent from the start, and finally found a reason to roar to life.

Mackey immediately silenced them with a four-point play, and that was essentially the game. An inexperienced Illinois team facing unprecedented uncertainty fell to 0-1 minutes later.

“You just can’t panic,” Groce said after the game. “It’s a long season.”

He’s right. It was one game; one loss. It’s no time to panic yet.

And it could very well be a long season.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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