Also in double digitsfor interim Alabama coach John Brannen were junior Retin Obasohan with 15 and true freshman Justin Coleman, who chipped in 10 points.
“Our biggest thing tonight was to keep fighting,” Levi Randolph, who scored 20, said in a rarely open Alabama locker room (per NIT rules) after the game. “My teammates want me to be aggressive. We were emotional (due to the firing of Coach Anthony Grant Sunday), but there was more passion than emotion. Passion last longer.
“I know (Grant) was watching tonight. I just want to say, ‘Thank you, Coach.’”
Obasohan said, “Levi’s our leader. He motivates us, and he brings energy. I’ve seen that throughout his career.”
“Levi was pushing people tonight in the locker room before the game, and our young men were able to rally around each other,” said interim Alabama Coach John Brannen. “Our energy was great. We wanted to sustain for 40 minutes our energy, our physicality and our connectivity. We put that on our (locker room) board before that game, and I think we did that.
“I’ve seen them play passionately before. What I liked about it was they sustained it. We just wanted to keep punching, and eventually your opponent will wear down.”
Cooper, who scored 19 points, said, “We’ve got another opportunity to play. As a competitor, you want that. We’ve faced adversity all year, but we never give up.
“We’re just playing for Coach (Anthony) Grant, and the things that have happened the last two days.”
Said Illinois Coach John Groce of the Tide: “I thought they were inspired today. I thought they had a cause today, and I thought they came out with a chip on their shoulder today. I thought their effort and energy level was great, especially in the first eight minutes (during a Tide 20-0 run).”
Alabama (19-14) jumped to an early 17-4 lead behind nine early points from Randolph, prompting a Groce time out at the 13:21 mark of the first half. With Bama up 19-4, former walk-on Dakota Slaughter ignited the crowd of 2,348 by diving on the floor for a loose ball and quickly calling time out. The crowd again came to its feet when Groce took a second time out after a monstrous Randolph slam at the 7:22 mark. Due to that early 20-0 run, at the half the Crimson Tide led 46-22.Bama’s biggest lead in the first 20 minutes was 29 points at the 3:51 mark. The 46 first half points was Alabama’s best this season.
“Basketball is a game of runs. It felt good,” Randolph said.
Obasohan said, “We wanted to start off the (first) half strong. I was just trying to make that happen. It feels great, but at the same time, it’s not about me. We’re still playing.”
In the second half, Alabama’s lead grew to as many as 30 points at the 14:51 mark, while Illinois pulled no closer than 19 points with six minutes to go.
Of his double figure effort, Coleman said, “I feel like I’m improving every game. As a freshman, every day you learn something new.”
Coleman added that he’s really looking forward to next season, and the return of injured guard Ricky Tarrant. “Playing with Ricky is like playing with Kyrie Irving (of the Cleveland Cavaliers),” Coleman said.
Alabama led in points in the paint (32-16) and points off turnovers (15-12). Randolph and Obasohan each grabbed seven boards, though the Illini won the rebounding battle 36-33. Malcolm Hill led the visitors in scoring with 22 points.
The crowd gave the Tide a standing ovation as it left the court.
Next up for Alabama is a trip to Miami for a second round NIT game on Saturday with tip time set for 10 a.m. CDT on one of the ESPN platforms. Illinois finished its season 19-14.