Illini Overcome Slow Start In Exhibition Win

The Fighting Illini basketball team overcame early nerves to take down Wayne State of Nebraska 79-51 Tuesday night in the Assembly Hall. It was an exhibition game, but the Wildcats gave the Illini a good battle for a half. Playing without four scholarship players, the Illini finally found the right combinations for an easy triumph.

Illinois used runs of 14-0, 8-0 and 16-0 in the second half to overcome a Wayne State lead and turn the game into a route. But the first half was a different story. Illini coach Bruce Weber reminded he was playing a lot of new guys, and the more experienced players were in new roles.

"I thought all our guys were very tight early. We weren't reacting, we weren't using our instincts. It wasn't the way we practiced. Part of that was we had Brandon (Paul) at the point. He hasn't practiced that, and we didn't get into anything. And they switched; their quickness bothered us. Guys like Tyler (Griffey), Joe Bertrand were a little hesitant."

Of course, Wayne State had something to do with a precarious UI 35-32 halftime lead.

"They played hard. The kids have got to understand it's a big game when these teams come in. They have five kids from Illinois. I thought their quickness bothered us. We had no scouting report, so they ran a couple of things and took advantage of it."

When a three pointer by diminutive guard Vontrell Seroyer gave the Wildcats a 37-35 lead early in the second half, Weber was pleased to see his players finally wake up and play more aggressively.

"I thought it was good for us to see how the kids responded. They took the lead, and after that we went on a pretty good run. I know we held them to 11 points until after the last TV timeout. We picked it up and probably wore them down."

While some fans might be disappointed their team couldn't begin the route early in the game, Weber reminded how young his team really is. Even the pregame introductions were a new experience.

"To me, the funniest thing was, in the starting lineups, most of them didn't know what to do. When they introduced them, they didn't know where to go, what to do. Three or four of them had never started, so they didn't know to go shake hands with the other player at midcourt.

"They were kind of running around with their heads cut off, shaking hands with the referees. I thought that was kind of comical. But it kind of shows you where we're at."

Illini junior Brandon Paul scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half. He confirmed the newness of the situation.

"It was a new experience for (the freshmen). At the same time, it's a new experience for guys like me, D.J., Meyers and Tyler because last year we had the four seniors behind our backs helping us out. It's different roles, and it will take a little bit to get used to. Hopefully we can come out next game and be better."

Sophomore Meyers Leonard was the Illini's leading scorer with 18 points, mostly on dunks and short post moves. He had no rebounds first half but grabbed four after intermission. He is beginning to understand the importance of staying near the basket.

"At the end of last year, it was obvious I was gonna be the go-to big, along with Nnanna (Egwu). It worked for me staying off the perimeter and staying in the post. I thought I did a pretty nice job of that tonight.

"Going to the post is something I know I can do. Last year I was kind of hesitant in the games. This year, I feel stronger and more confident near the basket.

"I didn't have any rebounds in the first half, and I was pretty disappointed in myself. I came out second half with a nose for the ball. I played harder and was more focused."

,P>While others scored more points, Weber singled out freshmen Tracy Abrams and Mike Shaw for praise. They both were warriors.

"Tracy Abrams had 5 assists and no turnovers, very positive. He made some other passes that led to free throws.

"In summer, he really struggled in practice. Man, is this kid a point guard? We got to Europe, and the lights go on. He makes plays. He won't back down to anybody. I call him 'rock em sock em point guard.' He's gonna run you over. He was very calm and let things happen. Made the easy pass, fed people on the post. He did a good job. Hopefully that will continue."

"Mike Shaw does what he can do. He plays hard, he battles, he guarded, he rebounded...8 rebounds, our leader for the game. He was physical inside. Him and Tyler kind of compliment each other. Tyler is more finesse."

D.J. Richardson scored 11 points, including a couple three pointers. Nnanna Egwu started but was saddled with foul problems much of the game. He came alive near the end to total 10 points. Besides his rebounding, Shaw added six points and three steals in a quality all-around performance.

Griffey played like a veteran and scored 8 while doing a good job directing traffic. Ibby Djimde struggled at the free throw line but added four boards and showed a rugged playing style.

The Illini shot 49.1% as a team despite an extremely slow start. They came from behind to top Wayne State in rebounding 34-27, blocked 7 Wildcat shots, and in a huge contrast to last season, committed only 8 turnovers.

"We said on the board to value the ball," Weber said afterward. "This is the best we've taken care of the ball since this summer, when we probably averaged over 20 turnovers a game."

Weber explained freshman Myke Henry was a scheduled starter but didn't play after being injured yesterday in practice.

"He tried to go; you've got to give him credit. He wanted to play so bad today. He was gonna start. He's got a strained quad. We're gonna take a picture of it tomorrow, make sure it's not a tear."

Sophomore guard Crandall Head will miss the two exhibitions and the first two regular season games after running afoul of team rules earlier in the year.

"He's got to do things the right way on and off the court. When you don't, you've got to pay the piper. It's a shame. He's got to keep a great attitude, and I think he will. He's got to stay ready in practice and make the most of it, use it as a valuable tool. He needs experience too, but he can't get it for awhile."

The Illini take on Quincy next Monday evening in another exhibition.

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