Illinois men’s basketball steamrolls Eastern Illinois 87-57 in season opener

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James Hoeck

Guard Terrence Shannon Jr. attempts to get past the opposing team during tonight’s match. Shannon made his premiere for the Illini with a performance that played a big hand to the team’s 87-57 victory.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

Illinois men’s basketball opened its season with a blowout win over the Eastern Illinois Panthers by a score of 87-57. Top performers on the night featured both old and new faces.

In its first regular season lineup, Illinois fielded three completely new players to the program. Freshman guard Skyy Clark, senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. and grad transfer forward Matthew Mayer all made their Illini debuts, with sophomore guard RJ Melendez and junior forward Coleman Hawkins rounding out the returning starters.

A rocky start saw head coach Brad Underwood dip into his bench early. Shannon began the match with two turnovers, forcing Underwood to sub in freshman guards Ty Rodgers and Jayden Epps for him and Melendez. Redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja also checked in early.

Around nine minutes into the first half, the Panthers were still in the match, as the Illini led just 17-14 after a few missed free throws from Rodgers and poor shooting from Mayer.

11 minutes in the Illini began to pull ahead. Two deep threes from Hawkins propelled the Illini to an eight point lead, 24-16.

Despite the early lead, the Illini were careless with the ball, turning it over six times in 12 minutes. However, after the early ball insecurity, Illinois rode out the half with just the six turnovers.

Illinois’ first double digit lead of the night came about 14 minutes in, courtesy of Shannon’s second time at the line. In the first half, the Illini went 9-16 on free throws.

Going into the halftime break, Illinois maintained its double-digit lead. The Illini led 46-31 with Hawkins leading the team in scoring with 18 points and grabbing six off the board. Also showing out in every category for Illinois was Shannon, who tallied 10 points with five rebounds. Despite no single member of Illinois really taking on the post-Kofi Cockburn scoring burden, the defensive toughness has kept the Panthers at bay, as the Illini had six blocks in half one of the new season.

Starting out the second half, Illinois’ shooting slowed down. Remaining active on the glass, Shannon and Hawkins collected two more rebounds between them, which turned into second-chance points.

Cruising to a 20 point lead with 13 left in the match, the Illini forced the Panthers into foul trouble. In just seven minutes, the Panthers tallied eight fouls to the Illini’s one.

A 12-1 run for the Illini in the middle of the half extended their lead to 28 with nine and a half to go. Shannon briefly passed up Hawkins as the team’s top scorer, before Hawkins took back his title at the line. The pair made up 45 of the Illini’s 74 points at the midway point of the half, as Hawkins earned his first double-double of the season with his 10th rebound of the night.

“I definitely think (high scoring nights are) very possible for me,” Hawkins said. “As long as we move the ball like we did, and we run our offense correctly, I definitely think I could have a lot of nights like this.”

Dainja exploded in the second half despite his few minutes. Two quick dunks and a series of defensive rebounds helped extend the Illini’s lead to 32. Playing just 16 minutes, Dainja ended the night with his first double-double as an Illini, securing it with 10 rebounds and 17 points.

Despite the standout performance, Underwood still demanded more from his big.

“We’ve gotta get (Dainja) hunting the paint a little more,” Underwood said. “That’s a post presence that is completely different than what Coleman gives us. He’s a guy that we’re gonna line up and throw the ball to on the block.”

Illinois cruised the rest of the way, to a 87-57 victory in its first match of the season.

Despite the win, questions still surround the Illini’s new look. Underwood’s front court produced just 15 points without Shannon in the blowout win.

The Illini have another opportunity to answer these questions on Friday, with another home match against Kansas City.

 

@DrewFriberg9

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