Nunn, sharpshooting, lead Illinois past Nebraska

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  • Illinois head coach John Groce gives Kendrick Nunn (25) a high-five during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2013. The Illini won 60-49.

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Rayvonte Rice had all the makings of becoming the go-to player of the Illinois men’s basketball team. He by far and away led the team in scoring during the nonconference slate and was actually relied upon too often at times. Those days are done.

The brilliance of Kendrick Nunn, along with the rest of the team’s sharpshooting, helped lift Illinois over Nebraska 60-49 Wednesday. In the process, Nunn has all but solidified himself as the go-to player of this team.

“Kendrick made some shots again, which was big for us,” head coach John Groce said. That’s an understatement.

Yes, he’s only a freshman and entered this game averaging just 5.4 points per game, but the kid can flat out score. For a team in desperate need of a scoring punch, Nunn has become the focal point of Illinois’ offense and has done so with bravado.

“I think I bring a lot of energy and toughness to the floor, on both sides, and just bring swagger to the team,” Nunn said. “That’s what I feel like my role is.”

Nunn has transformed throughout the season, first coming off the bench, then serving as merely a spot-up shooter. Against Nebraska, the freshman showed that he’s more fit to be a lead ball-handler. Nunn led Illinois with 13 points on an efficient 4-for-6 from the field. The lefty was featured in far more pick-and-rolls and isolations, looking more confident than he has all season. Nunn honestly didn’t shoot it enough.

He followed up his five 3-pointer performance against Minnesota with a 3-for-4 shooting effort from behind the arc against Nebraska. Nunn may have cooled off down the stretch, but with good reason; the Nebraska defense began to hone in on him. Nebraska started having off-ball defenders jump out at Nunn, forcing the freshman to pass more. This attention spaced the floor for the Illini and created numerous open looks. The 3-ball was really the difference in this game.

Illinois drained nine 3-pointers at a 37.5 percent clip. Malcolm Hill joined fellow freshman Nunn in the 3-point party with a 2-for-2 performance from behind the arc. Hill, like Nunn, is building confidence and starting to find his niche in the offense. Hill finished with 10 points and five rebounds and turned up his aggressiveness in the second half.

Nebraska, on the other hand, couldn’t hit anything from deep, shooting just 3-for-13 from behind the arc. Nebraska shot 0-for-8 from the 3-point line in the first half alone. Nebraska’s defense was solid once again, but the Cornhuskers aren’t going to beat any team with shooting numbers like that. Especially when their best players don’t show up.

The big two of this Nebraska squad, Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, were held in check this time around. The duo combined to shoot 7-for-25 from the field, a day-and-night difference from their combined 49 points on Feb. 12 against Illinois. Nnanna Egwu, played a large part in Nebraska’s poor shooting, even if the junior didn’t block a shot.

“Egwu is a unique defender,” Groce said. “His quickness, his mobility, his intelligence; he’s so good defensively. He does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”

Illinois has struggled this season — there’s no denying it — but this matchup against Nebraska showed us that maybe something can be salvaged from this season. Illinois’ record all of a sudden isn’t that bad at 16-12. The Illini haven’t just won two straight games, they’ve also discovered a new identity.

Illinois is peaking at the right time with only three games left in the regular season before the Big Ten Tournament starts. With how crazy this season has been inside the Big Ten, anything’s possible. 

Especially with Nunn front and center.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.