Player grades from Illinois’ loss to No. 16 Virginia in Vegas


Sydney Laput

Freshman guard Jayden Epps dribbles the ball during the exhibition game against Quincy on Oct 28.

By Drew Friberg, James Kim and Carson Gourdie

Sunday saw Illinois suffer its first loss of the season come at the hands of No. 16 Virginia. While underdogs, the Illini grew into the game and challenged the Cavaliers up until the final three minutes, where Illinois went scoreless for just over three minutes.

Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. had his lowest points tally of the season with nine, and the Illini really missed that scoring presence. Despite this, some players stepped up to fill that hole in scoring, with a few still impressing even in a loss.

RJ Melendez: B

Sunday was RJ’s best match this season. It has been an unproductive start to the season for the sophomore, but Sunday brought forth a match of good output by Melendez.

He by no means has to be a top scorer for the Illini, but in previous games he would score and then go 20 minutes without any sort of involvement. It was a different story on Sunday. He dropped eight points and shot a joint-high 2-4 from three. 

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Additionally, in previous matches, Melendez has been known to give the ball away easily. However, he had just two turnovers against the Cavaliers. It’s clear that RJ is making improvements as the season goes along, and Sunday’s game, although not perfect, showed what RJ could bring on a consistent basis.

Coleman Hawkins: B-

After a few down matches for Hawkins, the Cavaliers were dominated by the junior for a few minutes in the second half. He couldn’t put it together for the entire match, but when he was on he was almost unplayable. 

Coleman’s role is a much more intangible leadership role this season, and Underwood continues to mention that fact. However, in this match it seemed like Coleman found a really good balance, dropping 10 points and grabbing three blocks. I just wish he could’ve maintained some of that presence the whole match.

Dain Dainja: C+

I’m a huge fan of Dain’s presence in this team. He offers something that no other Illini can inside the paint. However, if Illinois isn’t going to use him, there are going to be a lot of issues against top teams like Virginia.

It seemed like everytime Dainja managed to work a mismatch, nobody would find him until it was too late. While the three was on Friday night, it wasn’t landing on Sunday, yet nobody seemed to want to get Dainja involved.

While he didn’t necessarily help himself when he did get his opportunities, scoring just five points, spacing out his opportunities won’t help him find his groove. While I think Dainja was underutilized and played a valuable game, the Illini did not set him up to succeed.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: C+

It was always going to be difficult to follow up that 29-point performance against No. 8 UCLA, and while Shannon continued to impact the game against No. 16 Virginia, it was a much quieter night for the senior guard. 

Shannon’s accuracy was nowhere near the All-American level that it was against the Bruins. The Chicago native only finished with nine points on 4-10 shooting and missed both of his free throw attempts. Shannon’s presence was not primarily felt in the scoring department, but instead in the assists category. The senior guard used his explosive speed in transition to dish out sneaky dimes to teammates, and finished the night with a team-high six assists. The senior also grabbed four rebounds.

However, this is about where Shannon’s effectiveness ends. The glaring negatives of his performance comes in two categories. For starters, Shannon fouled out at the end of the game after committing a fifth personal foul. Additionally, the normally reliable guard turned the ball over a total of six times, one of which being a careless mistake at the start of a possession. Sunday was far from the most composed we’ve seen Shannon, who will be looking to rebound against Lindenwood next week.

Skyy Clark: B-

For his first collegiate championship, Clark didn’t look bad out there and kept his composure throughout the game. The freshman shot 50% from the field on two three-point attempts and recorded an assist and four rebounds on the night. Clark facilitated the offense fairly well and came ready to compete, refusing to back down to Virginia’s physical game.

The Los Angeles native finished with eight points, scored both free throw attempts and turned the ball over twice against the Cavaliers. Similar to the UCLA game, Clark was decent but not great, and is still looking for his first loud performance of 2022-23.

Ty Rodgers: C-

Rodgers played limited minutes yet again and didn’t have much effect on the game. The freshman played it safe with his passes and finished the night with three rebounds. Rodgers missed his only attempt from the field and committed two fouls during his eight minutes on the court.

Jayden Epps: B+

Leading the team in points with 14, Epps continues to feel more comfortable taking a large role in the offense. While Epps provided a strong balance of being an outside and inside threat, finishing with two made three point shots. Epps ability to shot is a blessing for the team, but it would be nice to see Epps facilitate better, as he finished with no assists.  

Defensively, Epps did a good job of forcing the Cavaliers in tough situations, finishing with two steals. However, Epps did finish four fouls, contributing to the fact that Virgina shot 23 more free throws than Illinois. 

Matthew Mayer: C-

After his best performance in an Illini uniform against UCLA, Mayer took a step back against Virginia, finishing with four points and four rebounds. 

Mayer continues to struggle being efficient from the floor, as he made only two buckets on seven attempts. Mayer’s inability to find his groove behind the three-point line makes it very unlikely that he can contribute offensively unless it’s in transition.

 On the bright side, Mayer didn’t commit a turnover, and he did finish with one of the best +/- today — even though it was -5.

Sencire Harris: C+

After a strong, game-changing performance against UCLA, Harris only received nine minutes of playing time. Despite the lack of playing time, Harris finished with a team high +7 when he was on the court. 

Harris made the most of his time on the court, taking four shots. Although Harris converted on only a single basket and free throw, it’s refreshing to see the freshman try to create offensive opportunities for himself unlike Rodgers. 

Harris played aggressively on the defensive end, grabbing two rebounds and blocking a shot. However, two fouls in only nine minutes is not desirable, and Harris’ style of play make it likely this happens again with Underwood’s press defense.


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