Freshman trio of Epps, Harris and Rodgers boost Illinois men’s basketball to Nebraska triumph

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Sidney Malone

Freshman guard Ty Rodgers attempts a dunk against Nebraska on Tuesday. Along with freshman guard counterparts Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris, Rodgers played a large part in the Illini’s 72-56 victory.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

On Jan. 4, the final buzzer sounded in Evanston to cement a third straight Big Ten loss for Brad Underwood and the Illini. The 0-3 start to conference play left fans rattled, with many hitting the panic button for the rest of the 2022-23 season.

Fast forward to Jan. 31, where Illinois has just completed the season sweep of Nebraska for its seventh win in its last eight games.

The Illini have turned it around and is currently in sole possession of second place in the Big Ten standings. The uncertainty and angst surrounding the program just four weeks ago have been rapidly dissolving, with Brad Underwood’s team clicking on all cylinders lately. Star players such as senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer, junior forward Coleman Hawkins and redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja have all served as the cornerstone of Illinois’ resurgence.

However, Tuesday night’s victory over Nebraska saw another group of players step up. Three freshmen players, to be exact. Guards Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris and Ty Rodgers all performed exceptionally well against the Cornhuskers and lit up State Farm Center on numerous occasions with big-time plays.

“Their effort and energy was just through the roof,” Underwood said. “Really happy for those three freshmen. I thought they all did a lot of really good things.”

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    Epps, who has taken the starting point guard job for the Illini recently, reached double digits in scoring with 12 points to his name. The Virginia native has been sharp on the floor and has reached double digits in scoring during all three of his Big Ten starts. Additionally, Epps’ ability to drive to the rim was on full display against the Cornhuskers.

    “He’s elite at (driving to the rim),” Underwood said. “He’s elite at it. He’s done it all year. There hasn’t been hardly anybody who can keep that young man out of the paint. We all know he can score in there. When he starts making (jump shots), man. I’m just telling you he’s one of the best freshman guards in the country. I believe that.”

    The introduction of Harris and Rodgers to the Nebraska game saw them both play instrumental roles off of the bench. Harris scored eight points on perfect 4-4 shooting from the field that included a monster two-handed dunk. Regarded as one of the best freshman defenders in the conference, Harris’ energy off the bench helped the Illini turn around a mediocre first-half performance.

    “The first half was a little sloppy,” Harris said, “And we knew we had to clean it up. I think it just helps us when we play defense real hard. We’re one of the best teams in the Big Ten just in the energy we provide, and when we get on a run it’s hard to guard us.”

    Rodgers also had a big night, scoring seven points on 3-3 shooting from the floor as well as securing seven rebounds for the team. The Michigan native was all over the place against Nebraska, hustling to snag loose balls and, like Harris, continuing to bring immense energy during his time on the court. During the close stretches of the game, Rodgers’ rebounds allowed Illinois to get going on scoring runs.

    “His six offensive rebounds are six extra possessions which is huge,” Underwood said of Rodgers. “He’s invaluable to our team and he works so hard every day. It’s nice to see good things happen to guys that work that hard. He’s a terrific player. He can handle the ball, he can rebound it, he guards five different spots at times and that versatility is a plus.”

    The Illini have a bright future in their freshman unit. Tuesday night’s performance showcased the talent they have to be able to compete in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, and the limelight belonged to the three guards for their role in the victory.

    Epps, Harris, Rodgers and the rest of the Illini squad will be back in action on Saturday as they travel to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes for a 1:30 p.m. tipoff.

     

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