Illini men’s basketball finds fight in second half to bury Bison

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Illini men’s basketball finds fight in second half to bury Bison

Mike Thorne Jr. takes the ball to the rim during the game against North Dakota State on Sunday at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center.

Mike Thorne Jr. takes the ball to the rim during the game against North Dakota State on Sunday at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center.

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Mike Thorne Jr. takes the ball to the rim during the game against North Dakota State on Sunday at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center.

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Austin Yattoni | The Daily Illin

Mike Thorne Jr. takes the ball to the rim during the game against North Dakota State on Sunday at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center.

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

The sense of dread Sunday in the Prairie Capital Convention Center was eerily similar to the atmosphere during Illinois’ loss to North Florida Friday night.

As the Illini quickly fell into a double-digit hole against North Dakota State, it felt like déjà vu. The Bison scorched the nets in the first half like North Florida had two nights before, hitting 7-of-13 shots from 3-point distance, and carrying a 39-28 lead into halftime.

Illini defenders were getting beat off the dribble consistently, leaving the back door to the hole wide open. The Bison’s Paul Miller played the role of North Florida’s Beau Beech, knocking down nearly everything as he racked up 13 first half points and 19 on the afternoon.

Head coach John Groce stomped his feet in exasperation. Illini star Malcolm Hill’s jumper was off. Fans slumped in their seats and groaned.

Then everything changed.

Illinois tightened the screws defensively, turned that defense into offense and buried the Bison in the second half on the way to an 80-74 win. It was the Illini’s first victory of the season, evening their record at 1-1.

It was a gutsy performance for an Illini team that trailed by as many as 14 and looked poised to limp to an 0-2 start to the 2015-16 campaign.

“The thing that stood out to me was the grit displayed by our team,” Groce said after the game. “It required some toughness mentally on those guys’ parts.”

With Hill struggling at times — he finished with 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting — Groce turned to his bigs for production. And he got it.

Mike Thorne Jr. continued to eat in the paint, imposing his will on Bison defenders who were foolish enough to get in his way. The 6-foot-11, 270 pound Thorne dropped a game-high 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and snatched eight rebounds. The senior center’s pair of crucial old-fashioned three-point plays down the stretch of the second half rallied the previously sleepy Springfield crowd into a frenzy.

Thorne’s backup, 6-foot-10 junior Maverick Morgan, delivered as well. Displaying a feathery touch around the basket, Morgan scored 10 points in 16 quality minutes. The Bison simply had no answer for the Illini’s size on the block.

Just as the entire Illinois was breaking down defensively in the first three halves of basketball this season, it was a team effort in the second half during Sunday’s comeback. Walk-on guard Alex Austin chipped in five big points late. Freshman Aaron Jordan sprinkled in seven on 2-of-3 shooting from deep and continues to be Illinois’ most consistent marksman. And Leron Black returned from his meniscus injury, collecting five points and five rebounds in 15 minutes.

It was freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands who sparked the Illini resurgence. JCL scored eight points in the first five minutes of the second half to cut into a mounting deficit and finished with 15 off the bench on the afternoon. His four second-half steals catalyzed the comeback.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Illini going forward. They’ll travel to Providence to take on a Friars squad Wednesday that features Kris Dunn, who is perhaps the best player in the country.

Still, the Illini’s fight Sunday should encourage fans after getting steamrolled Friday. It’s what they’ll have to bring consistently to compete.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94