Illini men’s basketball cruises to victory in season debut


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Leron Black (12) shoots the ball during the game against Southern at State Farm Center on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

In Thursday’s press conference, coach Brad Underwood spoke of the “goosebumps” he would inevitably experience before coaching in his first game at the State Farm Center. Underwood would arrive early to watch the women’s team and get a feel for the “ambiance” of the arena.

“I was nervous; I was emotional, I guess, from the standpoint that I’m living out my dream,” Underwood said.

For any Illini fan, the nerves quickly subsided – the Illini led the full duration of the game – as they jumped out to a quick 25-7 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half in the 102-55 victory over Southern University.

In the first half, the Illinois shot 48.5 percent from the field, and converted 19 of 20 free-throw opportunities. The 20 free-throw attempts far surpassed the first half season-high of 12.

Junior Aaron Jordan scored a career-high 17 points. He had only totaled 23 points last season.

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Illinois forced 23 turnovers, which led to offensive transition opportunities.

“We got out and ran early, then I thought in the second half we did a pretty good job of just running a half-court offense and taking what was there,” Underwood said.

Junior Michael Finke set the tone early when he scored the first field-goal of the season on a strong right-handed slam on power-dribble across the lane from the left block.

The Illini continued to establish an inside presence, shooting over 50-percent from the field, despite going 4-21 on three-point attempts. The team had 14 offensive rebounds and converted 19 second-chance points.

“There’s an aggression when you get the ball in the paint and we talk about that a great deal,” Underwood said. “I thought Mark Smith was tremendous at driving the ball into the paint; you saw his strength and ability to finish.”

Smith scored nine points, and made three of seven shots from the field. He also dished out four assists, which matched the team-high set by Black.

At the 16:59 mark in the first half, Smith recorded his first collegiate points on an uncontested three-pointer from the right-wing. Fellow-freshman guard Trent Frazier was first Illini to come off the bench.

Fifth-year redshirt transfer senior Mark Alstork had a double-double. He scored 17 points and brought down 10 rebounds in a team-high 26 minutes on the court.

“You’ve got to give the credit to my teammates, and everyone that just came out here and played their role,” Alstork said. “It’s a team effort.”

Underwood raved about Alstork’s complete performance following “a great week of practice.”

“We all know that Mark is a capable scorer, but what I’m really happy with his rebounding and his passing – he was very unselfish,” Underwood said. “He’s a tremendous shooter that just didn’t have the ball go in, or (else) he would (have) had a huge night.”

Underwood employed various substitution patterns throughout the game, and often simultaneously called several players off the bench. Shortly after Frazier entered the game, freshman Da’Monte Williams, sophomore Kipper Nichols and Jordan took the floor after just over four minutes of gameplay.

The Illini have a quick turnaround as they host Tennessee-Martin at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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