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Nunn, Finke propel Illini men’s basketball to victory

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Nunn, Finke propel Illini men’s basketball to victory

Forward Michael Finke takes a three point shot during the game against Western Carolina at State Farm Center on Saturday.

Forward Michael Finke takes a three point shot during the game against Western Carolina at State Farm Center on Saturday.

Tyler Courtney

Forward Michael Finke takes a three point shot during the game against Western Carolina at State Farm Center on Saturday.

Tyler Courtney

Tyler Courtney

Forward Michael Finke takes a three point shot during the game against Western Carolina at State Farm Center on Saturday.

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

After going airborne to snatch an errant inbounds pass, Kendrick Nunn saw nothing but open court in front of him. The junior guard licked his chops as he soared in for a left-handed tomahawk jam that sent the fans at State Farm Center into the frenzy they were itching for from the opening tip.

Nunn’s rim-rattler sparked an extended Illini run in the waning minutes of Saturday afternoon’s bout with Western Carolina. It proved to be the final run the Illini needed to seal a much-needed 80-68 win.

Nunn finished with a career-high 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting. He played a team-high 36 minutes despite not being in the starting lineup and led a 37-point bench effort. Freshman forward Michael Finke was the Robin to Nunn’s Batman and netted a career-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting along with six boards and two assists.

Pick-and-pops at the top of the key opened up the floor for Finke, who drained four threes.

“First and foremost, my teammates found me when I was open,” Finke said. “I had confidence in my shot, and it carried over for the whole game.”

Junior captain Malcolm Hill had another relatively quiet outing, but scored six of his 10 points within the final 10 minutes to close out the victory. Freshman guard Aaron Jordan pitched in with eight points and two steals off the pine.

Illinois held Western Carolina to nine points in the final eight minutes of the contest. Head coach John Groce was happy with the defensive effort down the stretch despite allowing the Catamounts to shoot 11-for-24 from deep.

“I thought we defended the three once it got to 50-50 late well,” Groce said. “When you look at the stat sheet, obviously you still see we gotta be better there. Our guys know that.”

Nunn sparked the Illini offense from the get-go. Coming off the bench, the Chicago native drilled five of his first six shots, including three makes from beyond the arc. Finke started off just as hot and enjoyed a 16-point first half on 6-of-9 shooting. The Nunn-Finke combo accounted for all but six of the Illini’s 39 first-half points. The rest of the team managed just three field goals on 13 attempts.

“They were both very efficient,” Groce said of the high-scoring duo. “They were both aggressive and found a good balance of doing what they do within what our offense is supposed to do.”

Illinois led for much of the first half but couldn’t find a way to pull away for good. A 10-to-4 run to close out the opening half pulled the Catamounts to within five points before heading into intermission. Four different Catamounts scored at least six points and Western Carolina shot close to 50 percent from the floor in the first half.

Illinois opened the second half on a 9-to-3 run, and a short jumper by junior center Maverick Morgan put them ahead by 11 with 15 minutes remaining. Whenever the Illini seemed to have control, though,
the Catamounts answered — usually with a shot from deep. Western Carolina hit Illinois with a second-half barrage from downtown, and its eleventh three of the contest tied it up with under eight minutes remaining.

A 14-to-2 run and a 17-for-21 performance from the free throw line gave Illinois control until the final buzzer sounded.

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@joeyfigueroa3

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