Illinois basketball’s win over WCU wasn’t pretty, but Illini showed some encouraging signs


Tyler Courtney

Western Carolina forward Torrion Brummitt blocks Illinois forward Leron Black’s shot during the game at State Farm Center on Saturday.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

If you were anywhere near a radio this summer, you couldn’t escape the Drake track, “Back to Back.”ch

As I watched Illinois’ 80-68ch victory over Western Carolina (3-5) Saturday at State Farm Center, Drake’s “baaack to back” refrain from that song kept popping into my head. Probably because of the mini-scoring runs the Illini and Catamounts put together throughout a game that was closer than Illini fans would have preferred.

Illinois’ Michael Finke chconverted on back-to-back possessions in the second half on a three-pointer and dunk. His teammate Kendrick Nunnch did the same two minutes later on a midrange jumper followed by a steal and slam.

But Western Carolina was able to stay competitive thanks to two stretches of back-to-back-to-back three pointers in the second half. The first barrage allowed the Catamounts to bounce back to tie the game at 50 after Illinois opened up a 10 point lead, and their second trio of treys tied the game at 59 with eight minutes to play.

Finally, Malcolm Hill’sch back-to-back buckets with four minutes left gave the Illini a comfortable lead that wouldn’t dip below eight points the rest of the game.

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“Back to Back” is definitely going to be stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Nunn was brilliant again for the Illini, and no one should be surprised. He’s averaged 19.3 points in four games since his return from a thumb injury, and he dropped a career-high 27 chpoints Saturday. But it was Finke’s performance that turned heads and elicited the loudest cheers from his hometown crowd.

The 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman scored 24 pointsch on 9-of-13 shooting and exposed Western Carolina’s lack of frontcourt versatility and size.

“Michael Finke — we weren’t quite expecting him to unload on us like he did,” Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunterch said after the game.

Finke’s offensive skill has always been apparent, but I don’t think Hunter was the only one surprised by Finke’s stat line Saturday. The guy who passed up two wide open threes against Notre Dame was nowhere to be found. Groce said he talked to Finke after their last game and told him to not to be so hesitant.

“Tonight, (Finke) was shot-ready,” Groce said after the game. “I thought he was aggressive within what we do.”

Groce was also pleased with freshman shooting guard Aaron Jordanch, who looked very confident on his way to eight points in 17 minutes of

This game wasn’t pretty — Illinois had 19 turnovers chafter registering just three against Notre Dame—but it wasn’t a setback for the Illini by any means. Sure, there were moments of discomfort in front of a sparse and sleepy crowd, but wins have been hard to come by so far this season.

There’s plenty Illinois needs to clean up after this game. Even though he had 10 points, Hill wasn’t fully integrated into the offense. A still-sore Leron Black fouled out in nine minutes, and the aforementioned turnovers were costly as well.

But considering Nunn’s dominance and the emergence of Finke, there’s also plenty to build on going forward.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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