Illinois 69, Yale 65
CHAMPAIGN - For the third straight game, Illinois squandered a halftime lead. But for the second straight game, Kendrick Nunn played Batman saved the day -- only this time he had a Robin.
After scoring a career-high 27 points in a win over Western Carolina on Saturday, Nunn topped that total, scoring 28 points (18 in the second half) on 9-for-16 shooting (6-8 three) to lead the Illini (5-5) past Ivy League favorite Yale on Wednesday at the State Farm Center.
Classmate Malcolm Hill scored 20 points (10 in each half) on 7-for-19 shooting (1-for-7 three) following a season-low 10 points against Western Carolina. He also added a team high seven assists (to one turnover) and a team-high five rebounds.
The Illini had a 33-25 halftime lead, but Yale went on a 12-0 run in the second half to take a 37-35 lead.
Ivy League Preseason Player of the Year Justin Sears sat the final eight minutes of the first half due to foul trouble but led the Bulldogs with 21 points and nine rebounds. Point guard Makai Mason added 15 points and six assists, and Brandon Sherrod had 14 rebounds.
The Illini were dominated on the boards 48-25 (including 17 offensive rebounds on 34 missed shots). But the Bulldogs (5-4) committed 23 turnovers, and the Illini scored 25 points off those turnovers.
Illinois had its fourth game of keeping its opponent under 1.00 points per possession (0.94). It has won three of those four games (UAB, Western Carolina and Yale). The only loss came in a 60-59 loss at Providence.
With the win, the Illini are back to .500 after spending three games under .500. The win snaps John Groce's nine-game losing streak against top-100 KenPom teams.
Sophomore forward Leron Black did not play due to ongoing issues with a knee injury. He had surgery to remove a torn meniscus in October.
What it means
The Illini continue to make life hard themseles due to slow starts in a certain half. At the beginning of the year, it was the start of games. Now, it's the start of second halves. This team has only put 40 consistently solid minutes together once this season (72-58 win over UAB). The Big Ten will feast on this inconsistency. But the duo of Nunn and Hill at least gives Illinois a chance. They just need more consistent help. The problem is, the other guys capable of helping are freshmen.
What went right
Nunn and Hill played like the stars they should and need to be. Illinois played aggressive perimeter defense in the first half, forcing 16 turnovers. The Illini overcame a slow second half start for the second game in a row. Maverick Morgan provided a spurt of offense in the first half, and Michael Finke provided a spurt of offense in the second half. Illinois has just eight turnovers over the last two games.
What went wrong
Yale dominated the Illini on the boards. While Yale is a good rebounding team and Illinois missed Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr., the Illini need better efforts from their guards on the glass to help Finke, Morgan -- neither is a good rebounder -- and Hill, who were at an athletic disadvantage to Sears and Sherrod.
The Illini offense went cold to start the second half, missing some open looks. But as they have too often this season, the Illini let their offense dictate their defense.
Jalen Coleman-Lands went scoreless for the second straight game, missing several open threes (0-for-5 threes). Freshman are inconsistent, but the Illini need more from the top-50 recruit.
Point guards Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis combined for just one turnover but had just four combined points and one combined assist.
In his first start since Game 2, freshman Aaron Jordan shot 1-for-6 from the field (3 points).
Star of the game
Kendrick Nunn: The Illini junior is playing consistently aggressive since returning from a thumb injury. During the last two games, he is 18-for-30 from the field (60 percent) and is 9-for-13 from three (69.2 percent). He has scored fewer than 18 points just once in his five games this season and has just one game of shooting under 46 percent (5-for-16 vs. Notre Dame). He's playing like an All-Big Ten player right now. And the Illini need it.
Illinois heads to the United Center to host sister school UIC (1-5) for its final game of a three-game series contract. The Flames rank 331 of 351 teams in the KenPom ratings, so Illinois should get a win. But we all remember 2011. And Chicago State this season.