Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s upset over No. 8 UCLA

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Sydney Laput

Freshman guard Sencire Harris dunks the ball during the game against Kansas City on Nov. 11.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim, and Carson Gourdie

Friday night saw another win in the books for Brad Underwood’s roster, with a 79-70 upset over No. 8 UCLA. Terrence Shannon Jr. and Sencire Harris led the way for Illinois as we got to see just what this team may be capable of down the line this season. 

The Illini showed a lot of grit on Friday, with a lot of positives to take away from the match. However, a 14-point deficit in the second half is not a scoreline that can be overcome often. There were some issues that continued to shine through despite the win.

Turnovers continue to be a difference maker

Underwood has been very upfront about the way he sees this team find success this season. He wants a fast-paced offense, something that will play directly into the hands of players like Shannon and Skyy Clark.

However, the result of this style of play early on this season is a multitude of turnovers that are detrimental in certain stretches of the game. Against lesser opposition like Eastern Illinois, the Illini were able to overcome their poor ball security. Against the Bruins, however, 13 turnovers by the end of the first half paved the way for UCLA to get back into the match.

As soon as the Illini fixed up some of the messy turnovers, they were able to get back on track and go on a scoring run of their own. With just eight in the second half to the Bruins’ nine, the Illini were able to begin their comeback and maintain pressure on UCLA. 

Coleman Hawkins: C+

Coleman has been hailed as Underwood’s “trigger” on offense and as someone who is effective even if he’s not scoring. A big basketball IQ night from Hawkins, I was impressed with his ability to do things not on the statsheet, leading the offense at times against one of the best defensive players in the country in Clark.

There were times, though, where he made poor mistakes leading to turnovers at key moments. Like Dainja, there were two turnovers in particular that could’ve led to scoring at a necessary time for Illinois. 

He played 35 minutes, scoring five points with five turnovers. Those stats are way underwhelming for someone Underwood has so much faith in. However, his defensive presence as well as his ability to create opportunities for his teammates on offense — tallying a team high seven assists — saved his game for me.

Dain Dainja: B-

Dumb mistakes turned a great performance into a poor one. Two times in the first half Dainja turned the ball over at key moments, ruling himself out of four more points and giving UCLA a free possession.

While the redshirt sophomore was a force to be reckoned with in the paint, causing all sorts of trouble offensively, defensively he was nowhere to be seen. After some Kofi-esque performances to begin the season, Dainja simply needs to sharpen up, and this game may have not needed a comeback.

Although his mistakes weren’t egregious by any means, losing out on four points during UCLA’s 14+ point run and snowballing momentum in the Bruins’ favor didn’t help his rating. That being said, it was still a positive night. He was on fire to begin his cameo, but his performance slowly dwindled as the match went on.

RJ Melendez: D

Yet another uninspiring performance by RJ this season. I had no doubts he wouldn’t be the main guy, and you don’t expect him to be. But in 18 minutes on the court, he hit one three (his only points of the match), turned it over three times, missed three shots and grabbed one board.

My big question is just about his role. He has shown no reason to be a starter except for his effort. His effort and size give him a leg up on some of the younger guys this year, but to keep a starting role you need to prove a bit more. 

I’m waiting for RJ’s big game, but it doesn’t seem like it is coming. Underwood’s trust in the sophomore has me interested in just what he can accomplish, but in terms of tangible stats or performances, he simply is without a great one in the team’s first four matches.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A+

Shannon is the gift that keeps on giving. We all thought the Texas Tech transfer made a statement with his 30-point performance against Monmouth, but the senior guard was clearly far from finished. 29 points against No. 8 UCLA. Are you kidding me? Needless to say, Shannon was the best player on the court, hitting shots in clutch moments during the Illini’s comeback and defending exceptionally well.

It took only one half of basketball for Shannon to complete his double-double against the Bruins. It was also a historic night for the Chicago native, who tied the Illinois program record for most made three pointers in a single game. Shannon shot an incredible 8-9 from beyond the arc and an impressive 9-13 from the floor as a whole. 

The only area of Shannon’s game that was slightly below par was his free throw shooting. The senior only shot 3-7 from the line but his lethal shooting from around the rest of the court did little to take away from what was an All-American level performance. In addition to his double-double, Shannon also recorded three assists and a block. 

Shannon had himself a night to remember against the Bruins and is continuing to prove why he is one of the most dangerous players in the NCAA.

Skyy Clark: B-

Clark wasn’t great throughout specific stretches of the game on Friday night, but the freshman point guard still made some noise during the Illini’s dazzling comeback. The Los Angeles native scored 10 points on 3-7 shooting while also recording five rebounds and one assist. 

While the freshman’s shooting improved slightly later in the game, Clark was one of many Illini prone to sloppy play against the Bruins. With four turnovers and four personal fouls on the night, nerves seemed to understandably affect his game. It’s important to keep in mind that in Clark’s fourth official game of college basketball, he was pitted against No. 8 UCLA. 

While by no means a superstar performance, Clark did well against a high-caliber opponent and his showing against the Bruins gave Illini fans plenty to be excited about moving forward.

Ty Rodgers: D+

Simply put, Rodgers didn’t do anything notable against UCLA and wasn’t great overall. Of course, the freshman was only given seven minutes on the floor but he still managed to commit two personal fouls and turned the ball over. 

On the plus side, Rodgers recorded a steal and rebound but missed his only shot of the night. This was just a tough game for Rodgers but his performance against a top-10 UCLA team shouldn’t cause any significant concerns. There will be brighter nights for him in the near future.

Jayden Epps: B-

The freshman was not efficient from the field at all, but it was refreshing to see Epps not shy away from shooting after a rough start. Epps confidence to pull up and shoot from the perimeter and test defenses inside will pay dividends in the near future. 

While Epps finished with only four points, he did a fine job contributing to others — two assists — and showcased an ability to grab a rebound and kick the offense off while in transition. 

Skyy Clark — his likely top competitor for minutes — improved in the 2nd half. However, Epps played cleaner basketball and was more willing to shoot from outside — which will be needed because it’s unlikely the Illini can count on Shannon being Steph Curry every game.   

Matthew Mayer: A-

The athletic wing had his best game yet, finishing with 11 points, five assists and four rebounds. 

Mayer, unlike previous games, earned Underwood’s blessing to play significant minutes in the second half, and Mayer’s on-ball defense helped the Illini halt a Bruins’ comeback in the second half. 

Mayer won’t get to play his former school, Baylor, for the championship Sunday, as the Bears fell to Virginia in the first game of the tournament. But Illini fans should expect to see Mayer recreate the energy from today and hope that his size advantage can help the Illini secure more offensive rebounds and give Underwood’s program second-chance opportunities against the Cavaliers.  

Sencire Harris: A

Does Harris deserve an A based on his stat line? Four points on three shots, one assist and two steals? Probably not. 

But anyone who watched the UCLA game knows that Harris was an absolute spark plug for Underwood and Co. 

The key stat: Harris finished with a +/- of plus 16. 

The freshman came off the bench in the 2nd half, and gave life to the Illini attack, contributing heavily to Illinois back court press. Harris did a great job of poking out the ball on a couple of occasions and took key fouls that ended Bruin possessions. 

Harris almost missed another dunk, but he didn’t. Harris may not be a reliable scorer, but his energy and on-ball defense makes him invaluable in Underwood’s new system. 

 

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