Illinois men’s basketball dominates in Big Ten opener against Rutgers

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Cameron Krasucki

Jacob Grandison guards Caleb McConnell during the game against Rutgers tonight. The Illini won against Rutgers in the Big Ten opener.

By Angelle Cortes, Assistant Sports Editor

Illinois men’s basketball Big Ten home opener against Rutgers ended in victory Friday, 86-51. 

“We’re getting better, there’s no doubt we’re getting better,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “We’re slowly identifying roles and what those are looking like, we’re moving the ball much better.”   

Alfonso Plummer had another 20-point plus performance making it his fourth in row. He scored 24 points and was 8-15 in his field goals along with going 100% in free throws with five attempts. 

Despite the slow start by both teams, once it hit the five-minute mark, the Illini got in the groove. A jumper from Plummer and a three from Luke Goode after a near three-minute scoring drought helped jump start the domination on the court. 

A 10-0 run from Illinois propelled the team into a double-digit lead. Then, Jacob Grandison came off the bench and brought in a lot of energy right off the bat. 

He brought in 12 points when he was on the court and was effective on the corners as Rutgers failed to keep them covered.

“He’s an elite shooter, he’s got a super quick release, he’s a great connector on our offense,” Underwood said. “He gives you a burst coming off the bench.”

Defensively, the Illini were solid in the first half with the help of Coleman Hawkins blocking Ron Harper Jr. 

“I think he’s an elite defender,” Underwood said. “He took on the challenge of one of the best players in this league and a guy who has really given us problems in the past, and Ron Harper Jr. made it a very, very difficult night for him.” 

Harper Jr. has been a pain for the Illini in the past, and Underwood made sure that Hawkins was ready for the challenge. 

He was limited to just five points on the night going 2-12 in his shots total. Highlight of his offense was nailing half of Rutgers’ free throws. 

By the time Grandison went out of the game, Illinois strengthened their already strong run and were just short of doubling the lead. Just seconds later, Plummer drew a foul and went two for two at the line putting them ahead 40-20 with two minutes to go.  

To end the first half, Kofi Cockburn shot three of his four free throw attempts, extending the lead to 43-23.

“It started off with our defense, Coach (Underwood) complimented us on our defense after the game,” Grandison said. “The ball was poppin’, everyone was getting touches, we were playing as we call point-five basketball. Once you grow as a team, it just kind of manifests itself that you start elevating each other and playing for one another.”  

Coming out of the break, Rutgers tried to go for the comeback, but it was short lived. Illinois continued their domination and strong momentum on the court. 

By the first timeout of the second half, the Illini were still up double digits with the comeback from the Scarlet Knights out of their sights.   

Despite not having as strong of a performance as the first half, Illinois still managed to score 43 points with Plummer leading the way with 12 of his own. 

Near the end, Illinois were putting on a show for State Farm Center and firing up the crowd. An alley-oop from Goode to Hawkins along with a huge block and dunk from Cockburn aided the crowd even more. 

Despite still being down Andre Curbelo and the team just 75-80% well health-wise, the Illini put out a statement win and performance to start off the Big Ten season strong. 

“Coach was saying make a statement tonight with our defense,” Hawkins said. “Show teams that those early games are done, we’re basically 0-0 now, like it’s Big Ten now, it’s a bloodbath every night, and anybody can beat anybody in this league.” 

 

@AngelleCortes 

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