Illinois 82, Chicago State 79
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois avoided potentially one of its worst losses in program history as freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to give Illinois a win in a game it led for only 2 minutes and 28 seconds.
The Prairie Capital Convention Center was supposed to be a home away from home for Illinois (2-3) but it ended up a house of horrors for the Illini, which led for only 15:51 of a possible 160 minutes -- but it found a way to be on top for two of them. Coleman-Lands' three helped Illinois avoid its first 1-4 start since 1906.
Chicago State (3-2) went 8-24 last season, including 4-10 in the Western Athletic Conference, and hasn't had a winning season since 1986 but led Illinois for 34 minutes and 50 seconds. The Cougars held a 66-52 lead with 10:58 left.
Chicago State entered the game shooting 31.5 percent from three, but the Cougars drained 11 of 25 attempts on Saturday. The Illini allowed all four PCCC opponents to hit 11 or more threes. Elliot Cole led the Cougars with 21 points (5-12 3FG), and Kieran Woods added 20.
Michael Finke led the Illini with a season-high 17 and made 8 of 9 free throw attempts. Chicago State held Illini leading scorer Malcolm Hill to a season-low 12 points (3-9 FG) but he added a season-high seven assists. Mike Thorne Jr. added 12 points and nine rebounds, and Coleman-Lands had 12 points on 4-for-7 from three.
Illini forward Leron Black did not play due to knee soreness, after playing in the previous three games. He missed the first game of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in October. He's played 28 minutes in three games and has nine points and nine fouls. Illini head coach John Groce said he hopes Black will be available at this weekend's Emerald Coast Classic.
What it means
The sample size of bad basketball grows larger. Illinois trailed by double digits to every team it hosted at PCCC. Illinois is incredibly vulnerable due to a limited roster, but this looks like a team that will struggle to finish .500 on the season. The new players look overwhelmed, and while Malcolm Hill is doing his best, the Illini lack an on-court leader to bring toughness and set the tone.
What went right
Chicago State fouled 29 times and Illinois made 29 of 41 free throws. Finke, now 15-for-29 from the field this season, continues to emerge as an offensive difference-maker. Hill set up Coleman-Lands well for the game winner. That's about it.
What went wrong
Illinois' early-game struggles continue. They trailed 9-4 just 3:30 into the game, and CSU led by 14 with 1:01 left in the first half. In four games at PCCC, Illinois trailed at halftime by an average score of 41.25 to 31.5.
The Illini defense is one of the worst in the country at guarding the three-point arc, allowing 57 threes through five games.
The Illini guard play continues to crush them. Khalid Lewis was a fine late addition but doesn't look comfortable running the team and offense. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan continue to struggle mightily on defense, while walk-on Alex Austin is limited on offense.. This team not only misses the leadership of Tracy Abrams and the ability of Kendrick Nunn, but it misses the calming influence of junior point guard Jaylon Tate. Illinois struggled against Chicago State's full-court pressure (14 turnovers) and again struggled to stop dribble penetration.
D.J. Williams had to play with Black out and didn't add much (2 points, 2 TOs in 12 minutes).
Illinois has four days to recover and regroup before flying to Niceville, Florida, for the Emerald Coast Classic, where they'll face two more big tests, starting Friday (8:30 p.m. on CBS SPorts Network) against UAB. The Blazers were an NCAA Tournament team last season that returned its top six scorers. Depending on if a win or loss against UAB, Illinois will then play either Virginia Tech or No. 4 Iowa State on Saturday.