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Updated rapid recap: Illinois blows out Valparaiso in first game after Groce firing

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Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Valparaiso at State Farm Center on Tuesday, March 13.

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Valparaiso at State Farm Center on Tuesday, March 13.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Malcolm Hill (21) drives to the basket during the game against Valparaiso at State Farm Center on Tuesday, March 13.

By Lucas Wright, Staff writer

The questions of how the Illinois men’s basketball team would respond following the firing of former head coach John Groce were answered quickly Tuesday when the team beat Valparaiso 82-57 in the first round of the NIT.

“I think our head’s right,”senior Malcolm Hill said. “Coming into this game we just wanted to play hard and have fun. We don’t want to make our next game our last game. We just wanted to have fun with it.”

Illinois opened the game firing on an 8-2 run sparked by two Hill three-pointers. Following Hill’s lead, the starting unit poured in 16 points in the first five minutes, giving the Illini a strong start to build off of for the remainder of the half.

Hill continued to roll through the remainder of the half, tallying 13 points, going 3-for-5 from deep. Leron Black also chipped in his fair share of offense to open the game, putting up 11 points with seven rebounds to lead the team.

The team’s dominance continued into the second half, where the Crusaders never came within single digits of the Illini. Illinois stretched the lead to 20 midway through the half, allowing interim head coach Jamall Walker to empty his bench.

“When you play a team with a cause, they are dangerous,” Walker said. “That’s what they were today. They didn’t think about anybody else but our families.”

Hill led the way with 25 points on a 7-for-12 day from the field, along with a 7-for-8 showing at the foul line.

Following Hill was a strong core for Illinois, including a 13-point, 12-rebound day from Black and eight points and six rebounds from Maverick Morgan. Tracy Abrams stuffed the stat sheet on the day, scoring nine points and adding eight rebounds and five assists.

The Illini won the rebounding battle 43-26 in dominating fashion. Illinois cleaned up on the offensive boards, picking up 13 offensive boards compared to just seven for the Crusaders.

“Their size and athleticism really caused a problem for us,” Valparaiso head coach Matt Lottich said. “At the first media timeout they had seven boards, and that was pretty indicative of the game.”

Walker did have some unique changes to the Illinois squad, featuring Michael Thorne Jr. off the bench. Throne hadn’t played since Feb. 2 against Minnesota, but he logged 18 minutes off the bench for the Illini. Along with Thorne, Jaylon Tate and others saw rare playing time off the bench. Tate hadn’t played since Feb. 18, and he played for five minutes.

With the win, Illinois advances to the second round of the NIT where it will face the winner of the Utah-Boise State matchup that takes place late Tuesday.

“It’s been an interesting 72 hours for our teams and our families, but I’m really proud of these guys,” Walker said. “These guys have been through a lot, not only as a team, but as individuals.”

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