Illinois 80, NDSU 74
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois outscored North Dakota State 36-20 over the final 10 minutes to avoid starting 0-2 for the first time since 1923
Mike Thorne Jr. led the Illini (1-1) with 21 points (8-11 FG) and eight rebounds, and freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands added 16 points (3-for-6 threes) and four steals.
Malcolm Hill also finished in double figures (13 points, 6-for-7 FT) but shot 3-for-12 from the field. Backup center Maverick Morgan matched a career high with 10 points off the bench. Junior walk-on Alex Austin scored five points in his first career start.
Two days after North Florida made a program-record 17 threes (on 33 attempts) in a 93-82 win over Illinois, the Bison (1-1) shot 11-for-27 from three after making 8 of its first 14 attempts beyond the arc. Paul Miller led the Bison (1-1) with 19 points, and Malik Clements added 16 points.
The Bison, which had a 14-point lead early in the second half, shot 51.6 percent in the first half and 36.7 percent in the second half. Illinois shot 42.9 percent in the first half and 55.2 percent in the second half in front of a crowd of 5,332 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center.
What it means
Whew! The Illini held off the dogs until the next game. An 0-2 start would've added more fuel to the fire for John Groce doubters and put the Illini into an even deeper early hole. The win was ugly but the Illini got a win, which is all that matters in March. The Illini are a sieve defensively -- a huge concern moving forward -- but they battled back. They need to get healthy, and they need to get better. Because good teams will continue to expose them defensively.
What went right
The Illini fought back. Effort isn't an issue for this team. Like their coach, the players go hard. They just need to play more disciplined. They locked down defensively in the second half, forcing 10 of the 15 Bison turnovers over the final 20 minutes, to give themselves a chance. The Illini can score in the post against mid-majors. Mike Thorne Jr. and Mav Morgan combined to shoot 13-for-18. The Illini can play inside-out, but the guards need to help out with more consistent play. Malcolm Hill made some big bucketes despite a rough game overall. Leron Black played and contributed with five points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.
What went wrong
Freedom of movement is hurting the Illini. Defensively, they can't stop the dribble drive, allowing too many easy layups and runners or it forcing too much help defense which allows open threes. Khalid Lewis, starting in place of the injured Jaylon Tate, fouled four times out front. Offensively, they struggle to dribble-drive and create open shots for others. Malcolm Hill has to be special for the Illini to win early and so far he's struggling with the weight of that pressure, shooting 9-for-29 so far this season. He's relying too much on fadeaways and must attack the basket more. Leron Black played but obviously is not close to 100 percent. He lacks his normal explosion, following meniscus surgery. The Illini shot 17-for-27 from the free-throw line after shooting 12-for-23 from the charity stripe against UNF and 23-for-38 in the exhibition against UIS.
Star of the game
Mav Morgan: Sure, Mike Thorne Jr. deserves it after back-to-back 20-plus point performances (where would they be without him?). But let's give Morgan some love after he played a huge support role to give Illinois an offensive boost off the bench by tying a career high with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting. Expectations for the Illini junior center are pretty low this season. And while matching up against Big Ten post players will take a lot more toughness than against undersized mid-major post players, but this (8-for-10 FG through two games) is a good start.
Illinois plays its third straight opponent that made the NCAA Tournament last season with a Wednesday trip to Providence (6 p.m., Fox Sports 1) for the inaugural Gavitt Tipoff Games, which pits the Big Ten against the Big East. The Friars, which beat Harvard 76-64 in their opener at home, have one of the best players in the country, junior point guard Kris Dunn, who would have been a likely top-20 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. But he is surrounded by four new starters and a young team. It is a winnable game for Illinois and would be a big road win to add to the early résumé.