Illinois men’s basketball freshmen step up, rise to occasion in second-round loss to Houston


Cameron Krasucki

Freshman guard RJ Melendez makes a gesture toward the bench during Illinois’ loss to Indiana at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on March 11. Melendez and fellow freshman guard Luke Goode stepped up on Sunday, scoring a combined 15 points, but the Illini fell to the No.5 Houston Cougars, 68-53.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

The Illini did not have much NCAA tournament experience heading into the Big Dance. Illinois snapped an eight-year absence last season, but it lost in the second round against Loyola Chicago.

Those two games were the only experience any Illinois player had had prior to this season. 

With veterans struggling in the spotlight, two Illini freshmen emerged and made an immediate impact on Sunday, though it was not enough as No. 4 Illinois fell to No. 5 Houston, 68-53, in the second round of the tournament.

Guards RJ Melendez and Luke Goode did not play in Illinois’ 54-53 win over Chattanooga on Friday, though they both got significant minutes on Sunday.

“You’re looking for anything that will spark you,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “I made up my mind that we had to go a little deeper in this game anyway, but, you know, RJ’s spontaneity and his athleticism, I knew we would need in this game. And then Luke just jumps up and makes two like he’s been doing it his whole life.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Melendez scored nine points and shot 4-5 from the field in the loss while playing 20 minutes. He also grabbed two boards, dished out three assists and was the only Illinois player to have a positive plus/minus at +3.

Goode entered the game six minutes after Melendez, but he still played 19 minutes and went 2-7 with six points, all of which came in the first half. He registered five rebounds and a block.

Melendez entered the game with 11:05 to play in the first half, and he immediately provided a spark with the Illini down, 12-7, and the Cougars on a 7-0 run.

The freshman took the ball from junior center Kofi Cockburn at the top of the key before driving to the paint. Melendez took a dribble and took his shot, a floater that banked in off the backboard.

Goode came into the game with 5:16 to play in the first, and he knocked down a 3-pointer two minutes later, cutting Illinois’ deficit to four.

Less than one minute later, Melendez drove to the basket once again, spinning past his defender before getting to the hoop and finishing while getting fouled.

With the Illini down by seven, Goode drilled a triple with 90 seconds to play in the first half to give his team a bit of momentum heading into the second half.

“We needed that,” Underwood said. “You’re looking for that spark and you love playing veterans, but tonight it was a night that the freshmen were great.”

Though Goode went 0-5 in the second half, he grabbed four rebounds and played 14 minutes, impacting the game in other ways than just scoring.

Melendez scored again less than eight minutes into the second half, converting a layup on a pass from Goode to cut Illinois’ deficit to a single point.

His fast-break dunk was his loudest play of the game, though. After graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer grabbed a loose ball on the defensive end, he found a wide-open Melendez sprinting to the basket.

Melendez emphatically finished at the other end to end a 6-0 Houston run and reduce Illinois’ deficit to four, but he was called – somewhat controversially – for a technical foul for hanging on the rim.

With the season now over and the first-year guards prepared for a second season in Champaign, Underwood expressed his excitement for the future of the program.

“Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way, and you don’t get the break that you need,” Underwood said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to be better in this game. And we will continue. … One thing to do is to keep getting back here. We will keep getting back here. 

“You’ve gotta have match-ups, you’ve gotta have a good team, and doggone it, today wasn’t our day.”



[email protected]