Illini take on Purdue in regular-season finale

By Sean Neumann

It’s easy to say Illinois needs every victory, but grabbing a win Saturday could have big implications for the men’s basketball team.

With one game left in the season and hovering at a 19-11 record overall, the Illini are looking to push themselves over the 20-win hump and into the NCAA tournament.

Illinois will visit Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, with both teams trying to reach 20 wins.

When the teams squared off on Jan. 21 in Champaign, Illinois got big performances out of its big men.

Freshman forward Leron Black had his best game of the season, scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. This performance was backed up by center Nnanna Egwu, who added 11 points, seven rebounds and five blocks on the night.

Another big performance from the Illini big men will be key Saturday, going up against a Purdue team that has strength down low.

The Boilermakers are averaging 36.5 rebounds per game and lead the Big Ten with 5.4 blocked shots per game.

“They’re physical,” Egwu said. “They attack us, but we just need to attack back.”

Purdue center A.J. Hammons is blocking a conference-best 2.9 shots per game this season. The 7-foot center is also averaging 6.3 rebounds per night.

While limiting Hammons to eight points in 33 minutes last time out, Illinois had four shots blocked by the center and he grabbed seven rebounds as well.

Purdue struggled from 3-point range against Illinois in the last matchup, shooting 23.8 percent.

If the Boilermakers do come alive behind the arc, Illinois has been handling offensive runs well as of late. The Illini exploded for a 33-14 run against Northwestern to blow out the Wildcats and then erased an 11-0 Nebraska run early in the second half to beat the Cornhuskers 69-57 on Wednesday.

Egwu said the team’s poise starts with Illini head coach John Groce.

“We can’t just put our heads down every time a team scores,” Egwu said. “Like (Groce) always says, there’s never been a shut out in college basketball. We just have to keep our head up and make the next play.”

An Illini win Saturday could make them the 7-seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament, and will undoubtedly help their chances at an NCAA tournament bid on Selection Sunday.

But Groce is looking at Saturday’s game as an opportunity for his Illini team.

“It’s great to be playing for those types of things this time of year,” Groce said. “It beats the alternative.”

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@neumannthehuman