Illinois men’s basketball cruises past Quincy in exhibition following strong second-half showing

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Sydney Laput

Sophomore guard RJ Melendez dunks the ball during the second half of the exhibition game against Quincy on Friday. The Illini won 87-52.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

The sights and sounds of college basketball returned to State Farm Center on Friday night as Illinois took down Quincy in an exhibition game by a score of 87-52. After a nervy, error-filled first half, the Illini managed to come out with an improved second-half performance.

“I say sluggish, but maybe that’s not the right word,” head coach Brad Underwood said of the first half. “(We) played so fast that it was really ugly, which most exhibition games are. I thought we got in a better rhythm in the second half, I thought we moved the ball and we took shots in the first half that were really out of rhythm. We got going in the second half, and I thought our pressure did its job in disrupting (Quincy) a little bit.”

The Illini started off slow as the Hawks went on an 8-2 run to start the game. Quincy’s fast start was kick-started by some early success shooting three-pointers, hitting 3-5 from beyond the arc in the opening five minutes. Zion Richardson in particular boosted the Hawks’ lead after hitting two contested shots from deep. In addition to Quincy’s high pressure, Illinois’ play was all over the place during the opening 10 minutes.

“I think a lot of the guys had first-game jitters,” junior forward Coleman Hawkins said. “Seeing the crowd there, the different jerseys. It was just a little bit of nervousness out there. We make all these plays in practice but the ball feels a little different when there’s a crowd there. It was a little shaky at first for a couple of people on the team, but I think towards the end of the game we got a little more comfortable and people settled in.”

The Illini’s first points of the game came from sophomore guard RJ Melendez, who was fouled on a three-point attempt and proceeded to shoot 2-3 from the free-throw line. As Illinois fought back to level the score, it gained its first lead of the night off of a dunk at the rim by freshman guard Sencire Harris, who forced the turnover from Orlando Thomas.

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    The Illini began to heat up from this point forward, going on an 11-0 run that took the wind out of the Hawks’ sails. The score remained locked at 17-13 in Illinois’ favor as fouls and numerous turnovers began to plague play on both sides of the court. The Illini and the Hawks put up a few more points each before the momentum continued to fizzle out.

    The final 10 minutes of the first half saw the scoring dry up as both teams went on a combined 5:55 drought. After a foul by Quincy’s Connor Davis, fifth-year guard Matthew Mayer ended the scoring drought for Illinois by making two consecutive free throws. The sloppy first half came to a close with the Illini up 34-24.

    Any nerves felt at the start of the game disappeared when play resumed for the second half. Illinois came out of halftime and quickly went on a 6-0 run after freshman guard Skyy Clark and Melendez each made three-pointers back to back.

    A monster block by senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. provided an extra spark for the Illini as the Hawks started to falter. The visitors struggled to get anything going offensively as Illinois began to solidify on defense.

    The Illini started pulling away on the scoreboard and never looked back, going on a 14-0 run over the course of 5:24 primarily behind points from Melendez and Hawkins. Illinois’ intensity quickly overwhelmed Quincy as shots continued to fall and rebounds continued to land in its hands. On the other side of the court, the Hawks’ confidence was depleted as the visitors suffered numerous scoreless stretches.

    Illinois’ offensive production across the board saw healthy improvements in the second half in terms of field goal percentage as well as the number of rebounds won. Increased dominance in the paint paved the way for the Illini as they outscored the Hawks 53-28 in the second half, with Hawkins and Melendez finishing with 15 points each. Newcomers Shannon and Clark also impressed, putting up 12 and 11 points respectively.

    The nerves of Illinois’ freshman group was evident in the first half, with communication errors and turnovers present on the court. With Friday night’s exhibition serving as many of the players’ State Farm Center debuts, however, Hawkins believes it is something that will get worked out over time.

    “I think they adjusted well later in the game,” Hawkins said. “They might not have been nervous but from what I saw I think they just got a little sped up, picking up quick fouls and fouls in the backcourt, stuff like that. So I think it’s just getting used to the college pace.”

    The Illini will be back in action at State Farm Center on Nov. 7. Illinois will be welcoming Eastern Illinois to Champaign for its first official game of the 2022–23 season.

     

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