Illini basketball’s bench key in win over American


Illinois’ Jaylon Tate (1) drives towards the basket after going around a screen during the game against American at State Farm Center, on Dec.6, 2014. The Illini won 70-55.

Illinois is back on the right track.

Four days after dropping its first game of the season to No. 15 Miami, the No. 24 Illinois men’s basketball team bounced back and cruised to a victory over American (5-4) at home on Saturday. The Illini (7-1) came away with a 70-55 win over the Eagles in part because of the strong play of Illinois’ bench.

“Our reinforcements were good,” head coach John Groce said. “I thought those guys were ready to roll. Our four and fives were really active on the boards.

“We got a lot of contributions from a lot of different guys.”

Illinois’ bench contributed 28 of the team’s 70 points in the game and gave the Illini starters a much needed break as players like Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black and Jaylon Tate recorded 15 plus minutes of playing time.

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“The bench is really important,” Malcolm Hill said. “We have a bench full of starters in my mind.”

The Illini’s scoring was balanced as the team had five players finish with five or more points in the game. After finishing the first half with four points, Hill put together a strong second half and led the Illini offensively with 13 points. Rice finished the game with 10 points and Maverick Morgan finished with a career-high eight.

Pee Wee Gardner recorded 16 points in the game to lead the Eagles offensively.

Senior point guard Ahmad Starks bounced back from a 1-for-10 shooting performance in the Illini’s last game to start strong against American. Starks scored the Illini’s first five points and led Illinois offensively in the first half with seven points.  

Morgan and Rayvonte Rice both added six points and Nnanna Egwu chipped in five points and five rebounds in the half as Illinois got off to a strong start.

American hung around with Illinois in the early going — the Eagles even took a 7-5 lead with 17 minutes to go — but after the 17 minute mark, it was all Illinois as the team mounted an 8-1 run to take a 13-8 lead. Illinois continued to build on the run eventually ending the half with a 32-19 lead.

The Illini didn’t look extremely sharp at times in the first half as two errant passes found their way into the stands. Illinois committed its most turnovers on the season, 14, but won the turnover battle as the team forced 19 Eagles turnovers.

Groce said five or six of the team’s turnovers on the night were unforced and added that the Eagle’s laid-back defense and Illinois’ aggressiveness probably contributed to the season-high total of turnovers.

The Eagles kept the score respectable in the second half, although the outcome of the game never seemed to be in question as each run American went on seemed to be answered by Illinois.

Illinois shot the ball well against American, finishing at 47.9 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from three and 90.5 percent from the line.

The Illini also outrebounded the Eagles as Illinois grabbed seven offensive and 22 defensive rebounds on the night while holding American without a single offensive rebound in the game.

Despite the turnovers sullying the mood of the win, Groce said he liked the Illini’s ability to bounce back after a tough loss.

“I was really proud of our guys, the way they grinded,” Groce said.

Moving forward, the Illini’s bench will be important as the team gets into games against deeper teams. To Morgan, the depth Illinois showed tonight will be a positive in the future.

“We have a deeper team, we have an older team, we can wear teams down,” Morgan said.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.