Illinois 80, Western Carolina 68
CHAMPAIGN - During a referee review with 2:59 left in Saturday's game, Orange Krush student section members spent several minutes trying to get freshman forward Michael Finke to acknowledge them. When a focused Finke (his team was up 67-59 at the time), finally gave a head nod, the students gave a loud cheer.
Finke has always had a lot of fans in his hometown of Champaign. But the Centennial grad further solidified himself as an Illinois favorite on Saturday after he scored a season-high 24 points (9-for-13 FG, 4-for-6 threes) and pulled down a team-high six rebounds to help Illinois (4-5) overcome a scare -- and an onslaught of threes -- from Western Carolina (3-5) at the State Farm Center.
Kendrick Nunn did not start but scored a career high with 27 points (9-for-14 FG, 3-for-5 threes) in a team-high 36 minutes.
Western Carolina rattled off an 11-0 run in the second half -- hitting three straight 3-pointers -- to tie the game 50-50 with 12:39 left. But Illinois held the Catamounts scoreless for five minutes starting at the 7:59 mark of the second half, and went on an 15-1 to close out the much-needed victory.
Illinois trailed for just 16 seconds during the game, when WCU led 3-2 in the first two minutes. The Illini shot a season-best 52.8 percent from the field but allowed Western Carolina to shoot a season-best 11-for-24 from three.
Mike Brown led the Catamounts with 23 points (8-for-13 FG, 3-for-5 three), and Elijah Pughsley (5-for-10 three) added 15 off the bench.
Illini junior and leading scorer Malcolm Hill played a season-low 27 minutes and scored a season-low 10 points. He did not play for the first 7:21 of the second half, which Illini coach John Groce called a "coach's decision" after the game. "That's between me and him," Groce said.
Leron Black, who has been limited after surgery before the season to remove a torn meniscus, did not go through full warmups with the team before the game. He fouled out in nine minutes and shot 0-for-4 from the floor.
What it means
A win is a win for the Illini at this point, but their terrible three-point percentage defense worsened against a bad shooting team. The Catmounts had lost by a combined 48 points to Cincinnati and South Carolina -- both top-35 teams in the KenPom -- so the Illini continue to show they're a vulnerable team.
What went right
Nunn and Finke were hot and comfortable offensively and carried the Illini. Both are great complements to Hill, though Nunn is proving he's a star in his own right. Illinois got solid contributions from seldom-used freshmen Aaron Jordan (eight points in 17 minutes) and D.J. Williams (seven minutes) to start the second half. Illinois defense tightened up down the stretch, holding WCU scoreless for five minutes from the 7:59 mark. Illinois dominated the boards (34-21) against the smaller Catamounts.
What went wrong
Western Carolina, which came into the game shooting 29.5 percent from three, shot 11-for-24 from three. It was very Chicago State-esque for Illinois. The Catamounts got some open ones, but also made some contested and deep looks. After tying the State Farm Center record low with three turnovers against Notre Dame, the Illini tied a season-high with 16 turnovers. Hill's disappearing act for key stretches is a concern, though he finished strong. Maverick Morgan (three turnovers in 12 minutes) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (two turnovers in 11 minutes) both were carless with the ball, and Black still is not himself.
Star of the game
Michael Finke: The Illini freshman is ahead of schedule and has stepped up as the Illini's third scoring option in Mike Thorne Jr.'s absence. He has a great feel for the game and a great touch inside and out. He struggles at times defensively, but he battles a bit better than Morgan.
The Illini host Yale (5-3) for a 7 p.m. tipoff Wednesday at the State Farm Center. The game will not be televised but will be available on ESPN3 stream. Yale beat Vermont 72-54 on Saturday is the Illini's best remaining nonconference opponent, according to the KenPom ratings which listed Yale at No. 100 on Saturday.