Notes, player grades from Illinois’ 10-point win over No. 14 Wisconsin

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Sidney Malone

Forward Coleman Hawkins laughs at the sidelines alongside guard Terrance Shannon Jr. on Sunday. Hawkins played an amazing game against Wisconsin which led to the team’s 79-69 victory on Sunday.

By Drew Friberg, Carson Gourdie, and James Kim

Illinois finally got rid of the Big Ten donut. Three losses to Maryland, Penn State and Northwestern have sent this team into a downward spiral, seeing the Illini drop from the rankings completely, and dropping to 9-5 overall. However, on Saturday, Illinois put a stop to its downward trajectory with a 79-69 victory over No. 14 Wisconsin, securing its first Big Ten win of the season.

It was a mature performance all around, with the Illini boasting four players with 10+ points and turning the ball over just 10 times (a huge improvement from early season struggles). Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon Jr. led the Illini in scoring, combining for 44 points. Underwood finally got what he wanted from his team leaders.

Leading by example

Underwood has been challenging his veterans all season long to step up in this inexperienced team. Today, I think we saw a glimpse of what it is like to step up and lead. If not by words, Shannon and Coleman in particular led by example. 

Coleman stepped up in the scoring department, while Shannon followed suit. Both led their team to victory Saturday, stepping up bigtime to get their team out of multiple scoring droughts and tough situations. In the dying moments, for example, Shannon grabbed four defensive boards in quick succession to send himself to the line, putting the game out of reach for the Badgers.

This match was a huge step in the right direction for Underwood’s side.

Coleman Hawkins: A+

Hawkins deserves plaudits for a performance of this stature. Beating a team like Wisconsin after a slump like Illinois’ is a great result. To be the leader in that performance, one that Underwood has called for all season, is an even greater testament to his importance than dropping 20 points.

Hawkins was effective on both sides of the ball today. Early on, most Wisconsin shots were falling regardless of Coleman pushing them to their weak side. Later on, these shots stopped falling for the Badgers, and Coleman took the game into his own hands.

He finished with 20 points on 11 attempts, shooting 6-9 from three. Although he tallied just one assist, Hawkins’ game was near perfect. I want to see another mature, “lead by example,” performance from Hawkins soon.

RJ Melendez: C+

Although RJ was quiet, he was by no means bad. He’s always been an effort player, and I can understand why he is valuable, especially against good teams like Wisconsin.

Where I get frustrated with RJ is his shooting. So far this year he has proved to be a below average shooter, just like Sencire Harris is proving to be. But, he continues to take his shots, going 1-6 today against the Badgers and also putting up just four points, with two coming in garbage time. 

I want to see RJ’s scoring ability improve, but I think his role coming off the bench in the previous two matchups has fit him more than his starting role.

Dain Dainja: B-

I liked the aggression. Today he won a decent amount of his individual battles against Crowl, forcing the Badger big to foul twice in the first half, limiting his playtime and effectiveness during one of Illinois’ best stretches of the game.

It wasn’t an incredible day of production by any means from Dainja, shooting 2-6 and assisting just once. However, Dainja’s effectiveness wasn’t best measured in his offense today. It was his defensive pressure that helped stifle the Badgers inside. In the first half where Dainja saw the majority of his minutes, Crowl dropped just two of his 20 points.

He tallied three big blocks and six rebounds, which by no means is a ton, but having struggled against good bigs in the past, I was impressed with what I saw. I think he has the potential to hit another gear, but this was a good showing from Dainja.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A

For the last couple of games, we’ve all been missing the aggressive Terrence Shannon Jr. that simply dominates games. That version of Shannon returned against Wisconsin. Right from the beginning, TSJ brought the offensive fire when no other Illini could. The senior guard made his presence felt throughout the entirety of Saturday’s contest.Shannon’s 24 points were absolutely earned. With acrobatic layups and highlight dunks, it was a signature TSJ performance. The Chicago native shot 7-11 from the field and was explosive getting to the rim. After being fouled and sent to the line a total of seven times, Shannon took advantage and shot 9-12.   

The only real downside to his game were the four fouls committed. Like we saw previously, Shannon’s aggressiveness leads to fouls. However, it also leads to positives. With eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block, Shannon was active on the court whether he was shooting the ball or not. 

Ty Rodgers: B

Rodgers played well in his limited role, specifically off the ball. In 13 minutes, the freshman snagged three rebounds and had a really nice bucket after weaving through the Badgers defense. Rodgers brought the energy off the bench and meshed well with his teammates on the court.  

Jaden Epps: A-

Epps performed very well in the first half, shining as an offensive bright spot. Overall, Epps turned in an excellent shooting performance – showcasing strength inside and out. 

Epps went 5-8 from the field, while nailing 2-3 from the three point line. Epps even attacked the rim successfully, getting to the line on two separate occasions. Epps continues to be a bright spot offensively, and has supplanted Melendez’s as the team’s premiere jump shooter. 

Epps didn’t play perfect, however, as he committed four turnovers and gave up some easy baskets down in the paint. But when you can score inside and out, those errors will be forgiven. 

Matthew Mayer: A

Mayer didn’t light up the scoreboards like in recent games, but it didn’t matter – it’s Shannon’s and Hawkins’ job to score. Mayer, however, played his part well as the glue guy. 

Mayer finished with 10 points even though he only went 2-5 from the field. But Mayer used his size to his advantage, earning three trips to the charity stripe and converted 80% of his attempts. 

Offense aside, Mayer looked energetic and feisty defensively – despite previous concerns that he may have missed today’s game due to injury. Six rebounds and two blocks helped slow down the Badger attack, and Mayer ran well in transition. 

Sencire Harris: A- (on a grading curve)

Ok, Harris didn’t score a single point, so why an A-?. Well, the Illini really need Harris to produce offensively when the veterans step up. Isn’t it kind of nice that Harris knows his place and focuses on being a spark plug on defense? Harris missed badly on two layups to start the game, and then he didn’t attempt another shot for the game’s remainder.

Harris’ defense was incredible against Wisconsin, and his trademarked on-ball defense – which led to three steals – earned praise from ESPN2 color commentator Robbie Hummel, who predicted the freshman will be a headache from Big Ten rivals for years to come.

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