Illinois snags a confidence booster in win over McKendree

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Mike Thorne Jr. (33) rises up for a dunk over Lewis’ Delaney Blaylock (20) during the game at State Farm Center on Friday, November 4. Thorne shot 6-6 from the field and the Illini won 95-51.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Staff writer

Illinois beat Division II opponent McKendree to a pulp Tuesday in a 112-65 win. Compared to the Illini, McKendree looked like a high school varsity team.

There was never a time in the game when it looked like McKendree was going to contend and hang with Illinois.

And that’s perfectly ok. Illinois needed a game like this.

Compare the start of this season to last. After three games last year, Illinois was 1-2. After tonight the Illini find themselves 3-0. It doesn’t matter who you play, being undefeated to start the season is great for morale. And morale is something Illinois could use moving forward. The competition is going to be a whole division more challenging.

Illinois needs to play like this every game. While I know the competition level is vastly different, the Illini can still play with the intangibles they showcased Tuesday, regardless of the opponent.

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    They need to bring the same amount of energy and hustle they had against McKendree.

    Tuesday was a great opportunity for so many different aspects of John Groce’s team.

    Jalen Coleman-Lands was 4-15 from deep going into Tuesday.

    He was lights out against McKendree, finishing with 18 points and shooting 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. Coleman-Lands even had a stretch of three consecutive three-pointers early in the first half. This game might have spark needed to ignite him.

    Coleman-Lands’ shooting was contagious for the rest of Illinois. As a team the Illini shot 57 percent from deep making 16 threes – a State Farm Center record. Six players finished in double figure points.

    But Illinois still did a good job of not relying on the three-ball, penetrating and looking to play through the post. Fifty of Illinois’ 112 points came from inside. The offense found the right balance between perimeter and outside looks, which was something that it struggled to do in the first games of the season.

    Center Mike Thorne Jr. finished the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but still did not look like the player he was last year before getting hurt. He still seems a bit timid with the ball and continued to use the same post hook move that eventually was read by McKendree’s defense.

    Illinois’ sole true-freshman got some big minutes and showcased his talent when early foul trouble hit Tracy Abrams.  Guard Te’Jon Lucas entered this game with only three minutes under his belt. Lucas played 23 minutes and took advantage scoring nine points and finishing with six assists.

    He looked smooth, reliable and relatively calm for a freshman. As the season progresses and depending on foul trouble for Illinois, I could see him contributing more.

    There were a few areas of concern. Malcolm Hill struggled shooting the ball. He finished the first half with no points shooting 0-for-4 from the field following his career-high 40-point night. The second half wasn’t much different from the first for Hill, and he finished with three points. It might have just been a minor occurrence after putting up 61 in the first two games of the season, but definitely something to point out.

    Groce himself wasn’t happy with the amount of threes his team gave up. McKendree knocked down seven threes off 28 attempts.

    That’s too many looks for a Division II opponent. A team like West Virginia or a conference opponent will more than likely have a better percentage than that from deep, and Illinois will need to work on limiting those chances.

    But nonetheless, tonight is a confidence and morale victory for the Illini. Illinois should enjoy it because it won’t be playing any Division II teams come March.

    Matt is a Junior in Business

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    @MattGertsmeier