No. 16 Illinois men’s basketball takes down Syracuse 73-44 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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Sydney Laput

Junior forward Coleman Hawkins goes for the lay up against Syracuse on Tuesday.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

Conference bragging rights were on the line on Tuesday night as No. 16 Illinois battled against Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Champaign. The Illini prevailed 73-44 against the Orange to bring their record to 6-1 on the season.

“Tonight was one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “Pretty ugly night and yet I felt great about our offense. I felt great about the shots we got, I felt great about our execution, for obvious reasons (I felt great about) Coleman’s triple-double. That being said I thought our guys did a terrific job sliding into open spots. I have a hard time complaining about any of the shots that we took.”

Underwood went with his usual starting five of senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., freshman guard Skyy Clark, sophomore guard RJ Melendez, fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer and junior forward Coleman Hawkins.

After a block on the first play of the game by Melendez, it was the Illini to strike first thanks to a jumper from Hawkins. Illinois continued to build its lead up to 7-3 after Hawkins hit another shot and freshman Jayden Epps knocked down a three.

Syracuse took the lead back with 13:16 left in the first after sparking an 8-0 run, highlighted by two consecutive makes from beyond the arc. Neither side managed to break away on the scoreboard with the first half being a tightly fought battle. Shannon gave the Illini a boost with 7:40 left in the first half with back-to-back makes from three.

Despite quick ball movement from Illinois to find open shots, the team found baskets difficult to come by, as did Syracuse. The game suffered a scoring drought that lasted just under eight minutes before Mayer finished at the rim to close out the half. In total, the Illini shot a mere 12-37 from the field in the first period. Neither team shot above 32% from field goal range in what was a poor half of shooting, and the Illini headed into the break up 30-23.

Both teams came out of halftime slow and Hawkins opened the second half scoring for the Illini with a floater. The Orange began to heat up and started cutting down the Illini’s advantage before Shannon hit his fourth three to extend the lead to eight.

Melendez and Hawkins put together a 6-0 run for Illinois after scoring two consecutive threes, however, shooting from the field across the board remained poor for both teams.

Another Hawkins jumper, three from Epps and two free throw makes from Shannon all boosted the Illini’s lead to 13 halfway through the second half. After only playing four minutes in the first period, Melendez began to heat up late in the game. The guard hit a three, completed a three-point play off an and-one and assisted freshman guard Ty Rodgers to build up a 12-0 run.

Syracuse’s shooting struggles continued, with the visitors failing to get anything to fall. The Illini’s tenacious defense forced three scoreless minutes for the Orange as home side increased the lead to 23.

The Illini closed out the contest by a substantial 29-point margin, with Shannon leading the team in the scoring department with 17 points while also snagging seven rebounds. The spotlight was focused in on Hawkins, however, as the junior recorded 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists to become the fourth player in Illini history to record a triple-double.

“It was a great moment,” Hawkins said. “I remember my freshman year seeing Ayo get two (triple-doubles). It’s a great moment, that’s huge. The score’s right by the stats so every time I looked up I saw the stats. In the first half I think I saw six rebounds, a couple points and like five assists so then I was really like okay this is possible, I’m definitely going to play hard and hopefully get a triple-double. It just so happened to come.”

The win also served as milestone for Underwood, being his 100th victory coaching Illinois.

“I’m grateful,” Underwood said. “I couldn’t imagine doing it any place else. I love this place, I love our fans, I love the fact that you all care about us enough to write about us and follow us. I hope there’s a hundred more and counting in the future. I think this program can elevate to levels that we haven’t seen yet.”

 

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