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Illinois back in win column after return from Maui Invitational

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Illinois back in win column after return from Maui Invitational

Illinois center Samba Kane (34) dunks the ball during the game against Mississippi Valley State at State Farm Center on Sunday, Nov. 25. The Illini won 86-67.

Illinois center Samba Kane (34) dunks the ball during the game against Mississippi Valley State at State Farm Center on Sunday, Nov. 25. The Illini won 86-67.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois center Samba Kane (34) dunks the ball during the game against Mississippi Valley State at State Farm Center on Sunday, Nov. 25. The Illini won 86-67.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois center Samba Kane (34) dunks the ball during the game against Mississippi Valley State at State Farm Center on Sunday, Nov. 25. The Illini won 86-67.

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

Illinois is a very tired basketball team, according to head coach Brad Underwood.

In a journey back home from the Maui Invitational where the Illini dropped all three games to a lineup of Gonzaga, Iowa State and Xavier, the Illini got back in the win column with an 86-67 victory over Mississippi Valley State.

Illinois started off the game with a bigger starting look, opting to play both Adonis De La Rosa and Giorgi Bezhanishvili alongside normal starters Trent Frazier, Aaron Jordan and Ayo Dosunmu.

It was the first time this season Illinois turned to starting two big men. The Illini have struggled all season in the rebounding game, but in Sunday’s victory had a strong showing, winning the rebounding battle 39 to 26.

“Two games before in Maui we didn’t do that,” Frazier said. “We kind of struggled on offense with that. Rebounding just helps out offense get out into transition and score in seven seconds.”

To start the game, Frazier got off to a hot-start, quickly scoring eight points behind two three-pointers to put the Illini up 11-8.

Illinois began to expand its lead, but Mississippi Valley guard Jordan Evans helped keep the Delta Devils within striking distance for much of the first half.

Evans had 15 points in the half to lead the Delta Devil’s scoring efforts.

Illinois didn’t shy away from shooting behind the arc either though, tossing up 21 three-pointers in the half and making nine.

With a close battle to start, it wasn’t until the 2:30 mark in the first half that the Illini began to run away. A Nichols’ jumper in the paint kick-started a 10-0 scoring run to end the half.

Some rather unfamiliar faces got involved as walk-on Samson Oladimeji received his first minutes of the season and scored on an and-one layup, only to miss the free throw attempt.

Tyler Underwood also found the basket for what would be his first point in an Illini uniform, knocking down a corner three. The coach’s son, Underwood sat out last season due to the NCAA transfer rules after he came to the Illini alongside his father from Oklahoma State.

Frazier held onto the ball for the Illini’s last shot of the half and hit a deep buzzer-beating three to send the Illini into the locker room up 45-29.

In the first half, the Illini struggled to perfect its transition defense at times, allowing several open corner-three attempts for Evans, who went 3-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

When Illinois headed back onto the court, it didn’t let up.

True-freshman Samba Kane made his first appearance of the season briefly in the first half and then received plenty more playing time in the second. Kane’s presence helped assert the Illini in the paint, as he went on to score six points with two dunks and two rebounds on the night.

“Big time,” Frazier said. “(Kane) has to gain his confidence. Right now, I think he is struggling with that but me and the guys are helping him with that every day in practice … we are very proud of him, and we are looking forward to him taking a step forward every day in practice.”

The Illini put together one of its more well-rounded shooting efforts of the season, shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from behind the arc. The team also tied a single-game program record with 16 three-pointers, an achievement hit for the last time in 2016 against McKendree University.  

“I think that’s a little bit about who we are,” Underwood said. “I really, really like it when they go in, but I think that’s the one thing we know. We are going to be that team a little bit, and we got a lot of guys that can make them.”

The Illini’s offensive burst was also propelled by a strong assist showing, lead by freshman Dosunmu who had nine on the day. The team ended the afternoon with 15 more assists than the Delta Devils.

In addition, Underwood praised his bench players who put up 54 points to the Delta Devils’ eight.

“Now we can kind of regroup, get back to bed tonight and get this thing back on cycle,” Underwood said.

Illinois has a quick turnaround and will head to South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame Tuesday night.

@Schuster_Elias

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