Illinois 91, South Dakota 79
CHAMPAIGN - Illinois had its first 20-point lead of the season. It had its highest scoring half of the season. Its star had the best game of his career.
But it still wasn't easy for the Illini.
South Dakota (7-5) overcame a 20-point second-half deficit to trim the lead to six with 2:03 left. But Malcolm Hill scored a career high 34 points (on 16 shot attempts), tied a career high with 11 rebounds and added five assists to lead Illinois (7-5) to its fourth straight victory.
Illinois never trailed in the game in front of a State Farm Center Crowd of 11,714.
Hill shot 10-for-11 from the free throw line as Illinois scored a season-high 91 points, eight more than its previous high -- 83 last week vs. UIC.
Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands tied a career high with 17 points, shooting 4-for-9 from three. Michael Finke added 13 points and seven rebounds, and Kendrick Nunn added 10 points.
Tre Burnette led the Coyotes with 27 points, 18 of which came in the second half.
Both teams shot 48 percent from the field, and Illinois won the rebound battled 36-33.
What it means
Illinois' offense is in a groove now with Hill, Nunn, Finke and Coleman-Lands all hitting a stride. They continue to get great looks. But the Illini continue to make games tougher than they need to be due to lapses on defense and failures defending the three (USD was 11-for-27). But the Illini played its best half in a long time and again found a way to win in the end. With players like Hill and Nunn, Illinois will have a chance in most games.
What went right
Illinois put the pedal to the metal immediately, starting the game on a 14-0 run. The Illini were locked in on offense for most of the game, getting open shots. Hill was a superstar and contributed in every facet.
The Illini got much-needed contributions from all four freshmen: Coleman-Lands, Finke, Aaron Jordan (he went on a 6-0 run by himself) and D.J. Williams, who had a key block, a key rebound and a key jumper.
The Illini continue to take care of the ball, turning it over just eight times. Khalid Lewis had six assists to zero turnovers. He has just two turnovers over his past five games (107 minutes). He has 14 assists to 1 turnover over his past two games. His production has kept starter Jaylon Tate (2 assists, 0 turnovers in 10 minutes) on the bench for longer spurts.
What went wrong
Illinois continues to struggle with consistency on defense. USD made some contested shots, but they -- like most teams -- continue to attack the post against the Illini, who are without Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black. South Dakota outscored the Illini 30-20 in the paint and shot 51.5 percent from the field in the second half. Illinois also puckered a bit when the Coyotes made their run at the end of the game. The Illini forced some shots and didn't get the ball to the hot hand (Hill) enough. The Illini shot 11-for-30 in the second half. South Dakota made some runs due to hot shooting, including a 12-2 run in the first half to trim Illinois' lead to 25-21.
Star of the game
Malcolm Hill: Groce calls the junior wing "the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker" because Hill is the Illini's Mr. Everything. He contributed in every facet on Saturday. He has a chance to lead the Big Ten in scoring.
Illinois plays its annual Braggin' Rights Game on Wednesday against Missouri (5-4), which plays NC State on Saturday. The Tigers, ranked 174th in the KenPom ratings, are expected to have one of their worst seasons.