Illini freshmen lead men’s basketball to 60-49 win over Nebraska

Illinois Kendrick Nunn protects the ball during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2013. The Illini won 60-49.

By Johnathan Hettinger

On Wednesday night, freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill showed the fans at State Farm Center that the future is bright for Illinois basketball.

Nunn and Hill led the way to a 60-49 win over Nebraska by scoring 13 and 10 points, respectively. Nunn shot 4-for-6 and 3-for-4 beyond the arc, while Hill was an efficient 2-for-3, including 2-for-2 on 3-pointers and 4-for-4 on free throws.

The two freshmen starters also held their own in a strong defensive effort by the Illini. Illinois committed just 11 fouls, while limiting the Huskers to 23 percent shooting on 3-pointers and forcing 15 turnovers.

“Hill’s a good player,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “Nunn’s an emerging star.”

Nunn said he feels responsible for bringing personality to the court, in addition to his offensive and defensive efforts.

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“I bring a lot of energy and toughness,” Nunn said. “Bringing swagger to the team, that’s my role.”

Junior Rayvonte Rice was the only other Illini in double figures, but his defensive effort was even more noteworthy, as he grabbed nine rebounds and four steals.

In their second-to-last home game of their career, Illinois’ seniors had one of their strongest games of Big Ten play after struggling for much of the conference slate. Joseph Bertrand had six points, after scoring seven in the last four, and he held Terran Petteway, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, to an inefficient 13 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Jon Ekey had eight points, six rebounds and three steals in 20 minutes.

“Ekey and Bertrand, off the bench collectively played their best game coming off in that role,” Groce said.

Although junior Tracy Abrams had just one point, Groce said he was proud of his point guard for having five assists and zero turnovers. The Illini also got solid efforts from the other three freshmen off the bench.

“We’ve said all along that this is a team that needs everybody,” Groce said. “(Wednesday),we had everybody contribute and the result of that was a really complete game and a win.”

Ekey said the team isn’t playing any differently, the shots are just falling.

“It’s just one of those things. When shots are going in, it looks like we’re going together,” Ekey said. “It’s been like that all year.”

Illinois’ offensive effort wasn’t particularly strong; the Illini shot 19-for-51 on 37.3 percent shooting. But Illinois’ 51 field goals and 19 free throws belittled Nebraska’s 45 shots and seven free throw attempts. Illinois was able to convert 11 offensive rebounds into 16 points and turn 15 Nebraska turnovers into 24 points.

“We weren’t even close because the amount of shots,” Miles said.

With its first home win in 53 games, Illinois (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) climbed out of last place, while Nebraska (16-11, 8-7) had its five-game winning streak snapped and its NCAA tournament chances damaged. The Huskers, who are sitting squarely on the bubble, have three games remaining: home against Northwestern, away at Indiana and home against Wisconsin.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.