Illinois Basketball hangs on late for Senior Day victory


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Leron Black (12) shoots a three during the game against Nebraska at the State Farm Center on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.

By Will Gerard, Staff Writer

After a short scoring drought early in the second half, it appeared that Illinois would once again fold over in the final 20 minutes of play in front of a sellout crowd at the State Farm Center on Senior Day.

“The first half was a lot of fun, and the second half became pretty painful at times,” said head coach Brad Underwood.

However, the home team flipped the script this time around and successfully strung together defensive stops in crunch time.

Nebraska had won eight of nine prior games leading up to the contest.

Illinois (13-15, 3-12 Big Ten) snapped a five-game losing streak, due in part to a lights-out first-half shooting performance, and the team held on for a 72-66 victory over Nebraska (20-9, 11-5 Big Ten) on Sunday afternoon.

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The Illini were the beneficiaries of a loose ball that was ruled in their possession with 27.7 seconds left on the clock on a scramble for the ball after a missed 3-point attempt from freshman point guard Trent Frazier near the end of the shot.

Frazier later stepped up to the charity because he was fouled in the backcourt on the ensuing inbounds pass and he split his attempts at the line.

Nebraska responded with a layup from James Palmer Jr. with 19.7 seconds left to cut the lead to two points.

Frazier was fouled again and he iced the game with a pair of successful free throws. Fellow freshman guard Mark Smith pulled down the rebound on a desperation 3-point attempt from Palmer Jr., much to the relief of the 15,544 Illini fans in attendance.

Palmer Jr. scored 13 points (5-14 FG), though he struggled shooting-wise.

Smith awoke the Illini crowd on his first basket of the game midway through the second half.

He sunk a 3-pointer to give the Illini a one-point (53-52) lead over the Cornhuskers.

Frazier hit another 3-pointer two minutes later to tie the score at 56-56, following a series of multiple-player scrums on the floor for loose balls.

“There were some really great hustle plays by both teams,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “If you think of the one loose ball, it was an amazing display of guys sacrificing their bodies and fighting for the same thing.”

Frazier scored 12 points (3-12 FG), which included a contested, running floater from the deep left corner as the time expired on the shot clock around seven minutes into the contest. Frazier reacted with a mere Jordan-esque shrug of his shoulders in front of the Nebraska bench.

Smith again stepped up big for the Illini just a few possessions later. He tied the score at 61-61 with an and-one layup, following a 3-pointer from junior guard Glynn Watson Jr.

Watson Jr. is the younger brother of former Illini guard Demetri McCamey, who played for Illinois from 2007-2011.

Junior forward Issac Copeland Jr. gave the Cornhuskers their first lead since being ahead 4-3 at the start of the game.

His 3-pointer from the top of the key with 14:40 minutes remaining in the second half capped off an 8-0 Cornhusker run over 1:32 minutes of play, and 16-4 overall surge out of the halftime break.

Illinois led Nebraska 43-36 at the halftime intermission.

The Illini led by as much as 11 points within the first 6:30 minutes of the game, carried primarily by junior Leron Black and sophomore Kipper Nichols in the scoring column.

Black and Nichols combined for an efficient 29 points in the first half. The duo shot 12-15 from the field and 5-6 from 3-point range.

“I was able to knock down some threes tonight, so that’s really what got me going,” Black said. “My teammates were finding me in all the right spots, and I had some open shots.”

Although Black finished with a career-high 28 points (11-18 FG), Nichols went scoreless in the second half, and he fouled out with three minutes left in the game.

“Everybody got to see how his game has expanded in terms of handling the ball; he shot a couple off the dribble today (and) he hit a couple of threes,” Underwood said. “We’re really pleased with the way he played.”

“I thought Kipper really gave us a tremendous lift,” Underwood said. “I thought he was extremely aggressive on both ends of the court.”

Nebraska sophomore forward Isaiah Roby and Copeland Jr. led their team’s first-half scoring effort.

Roby scored 13 points (5-5 FG, 3-3 FG) and brought down five rebounds, whereas Copeland Jr. chipped in for nine points (3-6 FG, 2-4 3FG)

Copeland Jr. had a team-high 17 points (5-11 FG), and Roby wasn’t far behind with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

As a team, Illinois shot 62 percent from the field (18-29 FG) and 78-percent from three (7-9 3FG), while also dishing out 11 assists on 18 made field goals.

Freshman forward Matic Vesel even scored his first basket of the conference season on a wide-open two-handed slam off a cut to the basket with 45 seconds left in the first half.

Nebraska converted many offensive opportunities as well, as it shot 50 percent from the field (13-26 FG) and 38 percent from deep (6-16 3FG) during the first half.

Illinois outrebounded Nebraska 38-29.

Black, Nichols and junior guard Aaron Jordan each brought down seven rebounds.

Underwood addressed how the team had to attack the glass with the absence of junior forward Michael Finke, who did not dress for the second game in a row due to a concussion he suffered last week in practice.

“We’ve got to have that continued support from our wings,” Underwood said.

Sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas recorded a game-high six assists over the course of 40 minutes.

“He was aggressive driving the ball,” Underwood said. “Whenever we get in trouble, we (tend to) get passive and slow.”