Notes, player grades from Illinois’ early Big Ten tournament exit against Penn State


James Hoeck

Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. shoves on through Michigan’s defense during the first half of the Illini’s last home game of the season on Mar. 2. Shannon played great offensive against Penn State unfortunately the team was unable to secure the win and are now out of the Big Ten tournament.

By James Kim and Carson Gourdie

Well, the Illini remained winless against the Nittany Lions this season. Penn State completed the 2022-23 three-peat over Illinois after securing a narrow 79-76 victory to advance to the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. It was the Illini program’s first ever Big Ten tournament loss to the Nittany Lions as the focus shifts to Selection Sunday and the NCAA tournament.

Cole Hawkins, Dain Dainja ‘bully ball’ was effective at times, but not nearly enough

If there was any part of the court where the Illini found somewhat consistent success, it was in the paint. While redshirt sophomore Dainja still didn’t have a great shooting night from close range, particularly with that left hook shot, he and junior Hawkins managed to cause some problems for Penn State’s defense. The two big forwards bullied their way to the rim for quick lay-ins, but this strategy wasn’t enough to build up a big scoring run. The Illini’s strategy to feed their big men was working well during certain portions of the game, but it wasn’t effective enough to prevent the Nittany Lions’ season sweep of the team.

Terrence Shannon Jr.: A-

Shannon Jr. wasn’t able to save the Illini on Thursday night. In the Chicago native’s United Center debut, he put up 19 points on 7-14 shooting, despite questionable shot selections at times. Shannon Jr. was one of Illinois’ better offensive players, but his takeover ability wasn’t on display against Penn State.

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Per usual, the senior guard carried a significant amount of the burden in terms of minutes played, with 37 minutes total. In that time, he managed to snag five rebounds and record four assists. Shannon Jr. put in a solid shift against the Nittany Lions, but the Illini can’t depend on him to play hero ball each week if they hope to keep winning in March.

RJ Melendez: B-

In his 24 minutes, Melendez was fairly quiet. Despite enjoying a resurgence lately, the sophomore guard took on a backseat role and only shot the ball twice. Defensively, Melendez was good and had two blocks, one of which led to fastbreak points during an Illini scoring run. On the other end of the court, he also had a nice drive to the rim that resulted in another signature two-handed slam. However, it would’ve been nice to see more, as the guard finished the game with only four points.

Matthew Mayer: D+

In March, teams need the veterans to step up. The fifth year and former national champion Mayer struggled mightily tonight, extending his shooting cold streak from the perimeter and underperforming defensively.

Finishing with seven points on 11 shots, Mayer needs to find a more efficient and sustainable way to score. Mayer is now 1-15 from the three-point in the past two games, and his desire to shoot regardless of efficiency is a concern. Sure, Mayer could go nuclear from the perimeter in a first round NCAA tournament game and help Illinois win. But can the Illini count on that?

Coleman Hawkins: A

Hawkins was one of Illinois’ consistent weapons throughout the game. The junior guard was locked in offensively and shot an efficient 8-14 from the field, ending the game with 17 points. He was a physical presence in the paint and continued to chip away at the deficit with layups, and even scored a nice turnaround jumper from the midrange.

In his 36 minutes, Hawkins recorded five rebounds, four assists and two blocks. It was a great individual night for the Sacramento native, but it wasn’t enough to secure the victory.

Dain Dainja: B-

Dainja wasn’t bad against Penn State, but he also wasn’t great. The redshirt sophomore struggled at times from close range, and even had Underwood yelling at him to stop shooting the left hook after multiple misses. With 13 points by the end of regulation, Dainja was 4-10 from the field but managed to get to the free-throw line more frequently. His 5-8 shooting from the line included completing some crucial and-one plays, and the forward was only three rebounds away from a double-double.

Luke Goode: B+

Keep shooting. Please. No one else on the roster can.

Goode only took five shots, but his stroke was smooth. Successful from midrange and deep, the sophomore provides hope for a team that is dead last in the Big Ten in three-point field goal percentage. Goode doesn’t force shots, which is good, but his volume needs to be turned up. I’m sorry, but Goode is more trustworthy than Hawkins or Mayer from deep.

Sencire Harris: C+

Harris only played for 14 minutes, but his presence was steady. The freshman finished with three points and only two shots, and we recorded an assist and a steal. When Harris performs well, it seems like Illinois reaches another level – i.e. Northwestern at home. It never hurts to have a prowling defensive guard during March Madness.

Ty Rodgers: C

In his 12 minutes on the floor, Rodgers continued to play the glue-guy role for Illinois. The freshman cleaned up in the paint, though only once on his 1-4 shooting from the field, and he snagged three rebounds in the process. He wasn’t given enough time to make an impact but also did not harm the team in any way.

Jayden Epps: Hopeful for the future?

Epps suffered a medical scare – later revealed to be a concussion – and it was unclear if he would return this season. While the freshman only played three minutes, it was nice to see Epps play up to speed and compete. Illinois is lacking a facilitating guard. The offense is dysfunctional too often. While Epps is a natural shooting guard, he is the most likely – and needed – to fill the vacuum.


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