Dainja leads No. 23 Illinois men’s basketball to 38-point trouncing of Kansas City

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Sydney Laput

Redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja goes to dunk the ball during the second half against Kansas City on Friday.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

Following an emotional pregame 2022 Big Ten Champions banner raising, a highly energetic State Farm Center cheered No. 23 Illinois to an 86-48 victory over Kansas City in Champaign.

“Really cool night,” said head coach Brad Underwood of the ceremony, “But then we have to flip it and play a game that started off ugly. I thought Jayden Epps came in and did a tremendous, tremendous job of changing our energy. We did not have a great shootaround today, I thought we were a little flat, maybe there were distractions, maybe there was a little complacency. We weren’t very sharp (to start).”

Underwood made no changes to the starting lineup heading into the matchup, with the first unit consisting of senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., freshman guard Skyy Clark, sophomore guard RJ Melendez, fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer and junior forward Coleman Hawkins.

The first two minutes of the game saw both teams shooting blanks until Shannon got things started, opening the scoring with a massive one-handed dunk. Despite the initial momentum, the Illini’s accuracy suffered a sharp decline, shooting 0-13 from the field after sloppy misses beyond the arc and poor layup attempts, causing the Roos to take an early 9-5 lead.

The scoring drought lasted over five minutes for Illinois until redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja managed an and-one finish, sparking celebratory roars from around the arena.

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    The Illini regained the lead at the 11:25 mark off of a three-pointer from Mayer, who continued to heat up as the game progressed. The forward forced a turnover and finished a tough layup not long after, and Illinois began an 8-0 run. Freshman guard Jayden Epps boosted the Illini’s lead to 22-13 after two consecutive makes from beyond the arc.

    “Bringing the energy on defense is what got me going (offensively),” Epps said, “Bringing energy on defense and rallying my teammates together to get going. Obviously our defense led to offense so it’s just playing defense and playing hard that got us all going in the first half, second half.”

    The Illini continued to increase their lead in the final 10 minutes of the first through a combination of aggressive drives to the rim and defensive solidity at the other end of the court. Shannon continued to showcase his ability to draw fouls as seen against EIU, shooting 5-7 from the line in the first half. Quick passing and unselfish play from the Illini opened up the Roos defensively, with one possession resulting in a monster dunk by Dainja.

    Illinois’ reemergence on offense coincided with Kansas City’s struggles getting anything to fall, and the deficit between the two teams landed at 16 by halftime. The Illini led 39-23, offsetting the early-match struggles, with Shannon and Epps leading the team with nine points after the first period of play.

    Hawkins scored his first points of the game coming out of the break with a reverse layup, and shortly after Shannon hit his first three-pointer of the night after four unsuccessful attempts in the first.

    State Farm Center erupted with 11:38 to go as Hawkins laid down a wild one-handed slam that was followed up by another big block by Dainja. Illinois lept to a dominant 13-3 run with the momentum going its way. Dainja was the primary cause for concern throughout the game for the visitors, as the big man continued to sink basket after basket for the Illini.

    “I thought Dain was outstanding,” Underwood said. “I finally got enough sense to keep running sets and get him a little duck in in the second half. He was dominant and he was playing so hard. He’s keeping the game so simple that it’s amazing how that translates into success.”

    The game was heavily out of reach for Kansas City throughout the latter portion of the game. Deep bench players such as junior center Brandon Lieb and freshman guard Paxton Warden began taking the court with several minutes left on the clock as the Illini continued to increase the lead. Any energy the Roos had previously was gone and the closing minutes were all Illinois.

    The ranked Illini took the contest by a dominant 86-48 scoreline.

    Dainja continued to impress in his second official game for Illinois, completing his double-double six minutes into the half. The redshirt sophomore played an absolute force down low, shooting 9-11 from the floor and having a huge impact on both ends of the floor for the Illini. Finishing with 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, Dainja brought the danger on Friday night.

    “That’s my job,” Dainja said. “I try to do whatever it takes to win. Defense was the thing that changed the game for us today, so energy is what I wanted to bring to the team. Our guards do a good job of feeding me in the post, so I really appreciate that from them and I really wore (Kansas City’s big men) down today.”

     

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