Illinois 72, UAB 58
Kendrick Nunn scored a team-high 18 points in his first appearance of the season to lead Illinois to a 72-58 win over UAB (3-2) at the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla. Illinois (3-3) will play No. 4 Iowa State in the tournament title game 6 p.m. Saturday.
Illinois had its best game of the season with its most complete roster of the season. Nunn -- who had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left (shooting) thumb in October -- showed no ill effects from the injury, shooting 7-for-15 from the field (including 3-for-5 from three) in 31 minutes off the bench to give the Illini a much-needed boost.
Leron Black (knee) and Jaylon Tate (finger) also returned from separate injuries and gave boosts off the bench. Black, who missed two of the first five games after undergoing surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus, scored a season-high 12 points and added six rebounds. Tate, who missed the last four games with an open dislocation of his pinky finger in his shooting (right) hand, added three points.
Malcolm Hill showed again why Illini coach John Groce calls him "the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker," filling the box score with 12 points, four rebounds, six assist and a career high four steals.
Maverick Morgan continued his early-season emergence, scoring a career-high 12 points (6-for-6 FG) in eight minutes off the bench. The Illini shot 48.2 percent from the field.
The Illini defense stifled UAB, which scored a season-low in points and shot 38.8 percent from the field, including 5-for-23 from three. The Illini also had 10 steals from UAB, which had 16 turnovers.
Illinois led the game for 33:02. It had led for only 20 minutes and 20 seconds during the first 200 minutes of the season.
Illinois freshmen Aaron Jordan (20.8 minutes per game entering Friday) and D.J. Williams did not play, and Alex Austin (23.6 mpg entering Friday) played just six minutes.
What it means
This was the type of Illinois team John Groce expected to have. More reliance on veterans, less on freshmen and a walk-on. Illinois missed some of its best, most experienced players during its first five games. Nunn and Tate give the Illini confidence and experience, especially on defense, and Black adds some much-needed toughness and motor. This team has the talent to have a good season. It just needs to be healthy. It was surprising to see how effective and how much Nunn played after missing the last six weeks. Can this team gel quickly with all its added parts? It might need to if it's going to make up for three losses in its first five games.
What went right
The Illini defended. The Blazers helped because they were sloppy and are not a good shooting team, but Illinois had active hands and rotated much better on defense, thanks in part due to their veterans returning to the court. The Illini passed really well (14 assists on 27 made field goals). Nunn's aggression and shooting ability opened up the Illini offense for more opportunities. Hill is locked in as the Illini's do-everything player, and he shined with more help around him. Morgan continues to play his role so well. He is now 21-for-31 shooting this season (67.8 percent).
What went wrong
The Illini missed an opportunity to build a big early lead in the first half due to six turnovers and 36.7 percent shooting. The Illini struggled to score in their halfcourt offense. Mike Thorne Jr. (eight points, 6-8 FT) struggled in the post, shooting 1-for-7 with two turnovers. He left several shots short and was stripped when he brought the ball low. Illinois allowed UAB to hang around for too long, but the Blazers couldn't take advantage.
Star of the game
Kendrick Nunn: Hill was great and did more of everything, but Nunn gave Illinois the spark it needed. And not only with his scoring. Nunn pulled down a few big boards (four rebounds), played better defense than the freshmen who filled in for him and helped the team's ball movement. He added experience and some swagger.
Illinois will play No. 4 Iowa State in the championship game at 6 p.m. CT. The Illini are 11-1 all-time against the Cyclones, but this will be the first meeting between the two teams in 30 years (1985). Iowa State is 4-0 in head coach Steve Prohm's first season after succeeding Fred Hoiberg, now the coach of the NBA's Chicago Bulls. The former Murray State coach inherited a great starting five and one of the best offenses in the country, led by AP Preseason All-American forward Georges Niang and honorable mention preseason All-Big 12 honorees Monte Morris (junior point guard) and Jameel McKay (senior forward). All five Cyclones starters are averaging double-figure points, including along with senior wings Nazareth Mitrou-Long and Abdel Nader. Needeless to say, Iowa State will be one of the Illini's biggest tests of the season. But it also provides one of their biggest opportunities.