Notes, player grades from Illinois men’s basketball’s electric comeback against No. 21 Northwestern

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James Hoeck

Guard/forward Ty Rodgers pulls guard Sencire Harris to the side after a foul around the start of the second half during last night’s game. After Harris’s rough performance during the first half Harris’s team helped get him back on track in order to make a comeback to defeat Northwestern.

By James Kim, Drew Friberg and Carson Gourdie

Thursday night was a tale of two halves as the Illini overcame an 18-point deficit against the No. 21 Wildcats. Despite poor shooting across the floor and Northwestern’s Boo Buie playing at the top of his game, Illinois still had the pieces to turn it around in one of the most exciting games of the season.

Defense was the key to the comeback
Heading into halftime things looked incredibly bleak. Buie had 22 points and the Wildcats held a 37-19 advantage over the Illini. Turnovers and fouls plagued Illinois’ game, and there wasn’t a clear-cut answer in terms of stopping Buie. This all changed after the two teams came out of the break.

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One of the most obvious signs as to how the Illini outscored the visitors 47-25 in the second period comes from senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr.’s stat line. Shannon was on fire late in the contest and stepped up to score at pivotal moments. However, the other primary key was how Illinois stepped up defensively. Freshman guard Sencire Harris played lockdown defense and helped slow down Buie, limiting Northwestern’s top scorer to 13 points in the second half. The belief began with tenacious defending, and by the final buzzer, the game belonged to the Illini.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A+
What a night from Shannon. In his return from injury coming off the bench, the Chicago native showcased his ability to be a big game player and sparked life back into a struggling Illinois team. The Illini’s resurgence was led by the senior, who, after scoring only two points in the first half, came out and dropped 24 points in the second half.

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    Shannon hit the important shots at the crucial moments when no one else could. In addition to impressive 8-10 accuracy from the field, the senior guard shot a perfect 4-4 from three in the second period. When Shannon is aggressive driving to the rim and is nailing threes, he’s an unstoppable force on the court. The Wildcats simply had no answer as Shannon ran riot for 26 points in 29 minutes.

    Sencire Harris: A

    Freshman guard Jayden Epps had arguably his worst game yet this season, and it looked like Harris wasn’t too far behind during the first half. Porous defensive play helped the Wildcats knock down some early three-point shots, and Harris was scolded at halftime by Shannon.

    Whatever Shannon said, it worked.

    Harris was a sparkplug in the second half, helping the Illini slow down Boo Buie’s monster night. He didn’t force any turnovers, but his on-ball defense was the difference maker. Harris, who finished with third highest plus-minus, was also effective on offense. He finished 3-4 from the field and had an electric poster dunk.

    Ty Rodgers: B+
    Rodgers has fully grown into his role coming off the bench and was a physical presence on the floor. During his 29 minutes on the floor, the freshman guard scored six points on 3-5 shooting from the field and grabbed eight rebounds. One of the key qualities that Rodgers brings is his energy, and it was sorely needed in a game where the Illini struggled for significant stretches of time.

    RJ Melendez: B
    After earning his first career double-double against Minnesota, Melendez had a much quieter night against Northwestern. His presence wasn’t a major factor on Thursday night, though the sophomore guard snagged six rebounds and scored five points on 2-4 shooting from the field in 17 minutes. An important aspect of Melendez’s performance to note, however, was his one foul and one turnover. He managed to keep his cool in a game where Illinois struggled in both of these categories.

    Coleman Hawkins: C+
    His stat line might not show it, but Hawkins sure put up a fight. In a switch-everything defense, sometimes you get the short end of the stick. Guarding Buie as a big on a night like tonight is certainly the short end of the stick.

    There were a couple of times when the junior forward missed an open shot. Inexcusable sometimes, but he made up those points elsewhere. On one play in particular during Illinois’ final run to go up, Hawkins was switched onto Buie and defended well for 20 seconds. As soon as the guard blew past, Hawkins used one of his fouls smartly to get the ball out of Buie’s hands.

    It is plays like those that set Coleman apart. On a night like this when he wasn’t shooting incredibly well, those plays were necessary.

    Matthew Mayer: C-

    Some facets of Mayer’s game were excellent. He shot 10 free throw attempts, snagged eight rebounds, and recorded two blocks. However, his strengths were outweighed by the weaknesses tonight.

    The senior forward was inefficient from the three-point line, committed six turnovers and struggled guarding at times. Mayer has an ability to nail the deep ball, and recent games have had some pundits claim he’s the Illini’s most valuable player. While he has a high ceiling, counting on Shannon’s inside game is more reliable and effective than hoping Mayer gets hot.

    Dain Dainja: D
    Dainja was a complete passenger in Illinois’ win tonight. There were a lot of passengers, but the sophomore forward’s inability to get anything going in any facet of the game was frustrating to watch.

    When he got the ball in the paint, he was lethargic and not eager to get the ball out of his hands. Despite grabbing some boards initially, you have several other Illini who can rebound. Dainja’s presence was not felt anywhere, and it’s no surprise that he played just two minutes in the second half.

    Jaden Epps: F

    Coming off of an elite shooting performance against Minnesota, Epps couldn’t manufacture anything tonight. In just 14 minutes, Epps finished 0-5 from the field and recorded zero assists.

    Epps was eventually pulled from the game in favor of Harris, and Epps was consoled by head coach Brad Underwood and assistant coaches throughout the second half. After the game, Epps’ demeanor was quiet and sulking while shaking hands even after the comeback victory. After his first poor, poor game all season, Epps deserves a mulligan.

    Luke Goode: N/A
    The sophomore guard played only seven minutes and finished 0-2 shooting.

     

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