Hill carries Illini to 91-79 win over South Dakota

By Alex Roux

Tweet: Malcolm Hill put up 34 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in a 91-79 win over South Dakota, writes @aroux94

By Alex Roux

Illini hoops columnist

A mid-major in mid-December on the home schedule usually means one of two things when it comes to Illinois basketball. Either the Illini cruise to a blowout win in snooze-inducing fashion, or play down to the level of an inferior team in a game that makes you cringe.

Neither happened Saturday at State Farm Center against South Dakota.

Despite the students being gone for winter break, a surprisingly boisterous crowd of 11,714 was treated to a fun back-and-forth shootout that ended in a 91-79 win for the Illini over the Coyotes. The victory improved Illinois’ record to 7-5 on the season.

This was a track meet. Illinois repeatedly pushed the ball in transition, unleashed a barrage of 30 3-pointers and forced South Dakota to try and keep up. There wasn’t much defense to speak of, except for in the first five minutes of the game.

The Coyotes came up empty in their first eight possessions, turning the ball over four times and wilting under intense Illini pressure after the opening tip. The start was exactly what you’d want to see from an Illinois group coming off a week-long break and last Saturday’s disappointing game against UIC.

South Dakota’s early struggles allowed the Illini to open up a 14-0 lead behind buckets from Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Jalen Coleman-Lands. The Coyotes would creep back into the game multiple times, clawing to within six with 4:15 remaining in the game. Illinois led by as much as 20 in the second half, which was their first 20-point lead of the season.

Tre Burnette led the Coyotes with 27 points, scoring 19 in the second half to help keep the Illini from coasting. But Burnette’s gaudy numbers were eclipsed by Malcolm Hill’s line, who put together his most complete game in his two-plus seasons as an Illini.

Hill torched the Coyotes for a career-high 34 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including four 3-pointers. He pulled down 11 rebounds, dished out five assists, blocked three shots and picked up two steals for good measure.

“What a quiet confidence (he has), just a fun guy to watch,” South Dakota coach Craig Smith said about Hill after the game. “And he sure kicked our ‘you-know-what.’”

Hill’s outburst was the best scoring effort from an Illini since Brandon Paul dropped 35 on Gonzaga in 2012.

Hill wasn’t the only one cashing out Saturday. Finke and Coleman-Lands continued to emerge as impact freshmen on offense, scoring 13 and 17 points, respectively. Nunn added 10, and has scored in double figures in all seven of his games this season since returning from a thumb injury.

While the defensive performance still wasn’t where head coach John Groce would like it to be, he has to be happy with how his offense is coming together. Hill, Nunn, Finke and Coleman-Lands are learning how to score consistently and distribute shots effectively. Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis ran the show without turning the ball over. Maverick Morgan, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams all filled their backup roles nicely.

The freshman Williams played 14 minutes, which is a huge upgrade from early in the season when he was buried on the bench. He won’t be a major impact player immediately, but his potential to be a very good four-year player is obvious. At 6-foot-7, his two points came on a smooth mid-range jumper that we hadn’t seen him display yet this year.

Overall, this game leaves the fan base with a much better collective taste in its mouth than it had a week ago. South Dakota isn’t great, but it beat Minnesota on the road and had won six of seven entering Saturday’s game. Illinois never trailed and was never in serious danger of losing. You’ll certainly take it heading into Wednesday’s annual rivalry matchup against Missouri.

The Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis won’t have as much buildup as in the past, thanks to a mid-week time slot and the recent struggles of the Illini and Mizzou programs. But you can almost guarantee that it will be close, and it will be crazy.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94