CHAMPAIGN -- Following a three-loss week, the Illini had their backs against the wall fighting to keep a pulse heading into Tuesday's ACC/Big Ten Challenge clash with N.C. State -- and they showed life with an 88-74 victory.
Illinois (5-3) played with heart, energy and effort against the Wolfpack. Shoddy execution had them down one at the half. But they quickly found the execution piece in the second half, as they outscored N.C. State 56-to-41 in the final 20 minutes.
"Really proud of the guys for the way they responded," Illini head coach John Groce said. "Obviously, last week -- from an outcome perspective -- was not what any of us wanted."
The Illini shot 67.9 percent from the field in the second half, while going 3-of-6 from three and 15-of-18 from the free-throw line. They also had just two turnovers -- compared to nine giveaways in the first half. N.C. State shot 52 percent in the second half, and 52.8 percent on the game, but they had 19 turnovers.
After trailing by two early in the second half, Illinois went on a 12-to-3 run to make it 52-45 with 13:52 left. N.C. State never got closer than seven during the final nine minutes of the game.
Groce was proud of his team's effort and energy, especially down the stretch.
"We sustained it for the full 40 minutes. And I thought with 10 minutes to go, we actually ratcheted it up another level." he said.
Malcolm Hill led the Illini with 22 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
"He had a great feel for what was going on out there. He was in attack mode," Groce said. "He was in a zone a little bit in terms of making decisions and making plays."
Tracy Abrams (17), Leron Black (15) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (11) also scored in double figures for the Illini. Here are five takeaways from the much-needed win to close out November.
Resilience bred by veterans
Groce said after the game that his players called a team meeting following last Friday's loss to Florida State. The seniors had their own meeting too. In two days of prep for this game, Groce noted that his team only practiced one hour each day. They spent far more time talking and watching film.
That's the benefit of having a veteran team, and we've all been waiting to see that play to Illinois' advantage when it matters. Tuesday's game mattered as much as any game the program has had in more than a year and a half.
Some fans and media were ready to bury Groce's team over the weekend. A Thanksgiving blasting left fans sick to their stomach. Another loss on Black Friday had many putting their stock in this year and Groce on the clearance rack.
No one inside the program admitted it publicly, but there was a monstrous amount of pressure to win this game. Your home crowd showed up. Your AD was closely watching. A fourth straight loss would have given Josh Whitman no choice but to check his list like Santa Claus this time of year.
But as Groce likes to say, seniors die hard. Hill particularly stepped up to have a huge game. And sixth-year seniors must die harder. Abrams played out of his mind -- 17 points with three steals and three treys in 31 minutes. He wasn't shaken after a bad week.
"We trust in what we're doing," Abrams said on Monday.
With a guy like that amidst all the outside noise, Groce was able to feel the same way.
Groce made a fix... Finally
It's been as clear as the sky is blue that Illinois' lineup needed a shakeup. And Illini fans could tell you exactly where.
But Groce stubbornly trotted out the same starting lineup on Tuesday night with Jaylon Tate, Abrams, Hill, Michael Finke and Mike Thorne Jr. Same inputs get the same outputs.
Finally at halftime, Groce made a change. He took Tate and Finke out, and he put Coleman-Lands and Black in. Finke had just three points and one rebound in 15 minutes. Black was a game-changer with 15 points and eight rebounds, including four offensive boards. He and Coleman-Lands combined for 21 points in the second half, while going 9-of-12 from the field.
And to the delight of Illini fans, Groce changed his point guard rotation. Abrams played the one for a good portion of the second half, which was the first time he's done that since the very beginning of the season. And Te'Jon Lucas played over Tate, and he played well.
Lucas finished with four points, two steals and two turnovers. He made a few mistakes. But he gave you positive plays too. He has ability, and while Tate is experienced and may turn Groce's stomach less, Lucas is clearly the better player.
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Maybe that had something to do with Illinois being -1 at halftime and +15 in the second half.
Second-half offensive flow best yet
Groce has talked at length about trying to find synchronization offensively. His team moved and flowed as well as they have all season in the second half.
They missed just nine shots in the second half, and they got four of those back on the offensive glass.The Illini had seven assists on 19 made buckets.
The ball swung around the perimeter. Illinois got out in transition. The offensive showing was exemplified early in the half with a steal by Abrams and a nice setup to Hill at the three-point line. Hill already hit two jumpers in the first minute and a half, and he could have taken another with a defender near but not near enough.
But as good offensive teams do, Hill passed up a good shot for a better shot -- dishing it to a wide open Coleman-Lands in the corner. Splash.
N.C. State is a bad defensive team, and that might be kind. But Illinois has an assortment of offensive firepower, and it was good to see them come together as a dangerous arsenal.
Leron filling X-factor role
Black changes the dynamic for the Illini when he's on the floor. It's energy. It's toughness. It's 'dog'. He has an 'it' factor.
"The energy level of Black is just contagious," Groce said. "He plays the game with such enthusiasm and energy."
Black had 15 and eight on Tuesday night. He's averaging 11.5 points and eight boards, while shooting 50 percent from the field -- and that's all against Illinois' four toughest opponents thus far.
The redshirt-sophomore is doing what he's been doing in practice. He attacks the glass. He plays harder than anyone. And he has a confident and highly-effective mid-range game -- one that reminded Illini fans of Roger Powell when watching highlight tapes back when he was being recruited.
He's been exactly what the Illini have needed, and his play will continue to be absolutely crucial for the team going forward.
The Illini were given the chance to breathe for a second on Tuesday night. The air was cleared in Champaign for a moment.
There's little margin for error left in the nonconference. But Illinois showed that their heart is still beating. They're not dead in November.
N.C. State wasn't the challenge that was expected. Instead, they looked like a young team playing their first road game. Dennis Smith Jr. (12 points) -- projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft -- was off. He didn't make a field goal in the second half.
The Illini deserve some credit for that. And they won't complain about the outcome. Luckily for the Illini, N.C. State will be better later in the season. They're a talented team that's young and missing a few pieces. They will beat some people in the ACC, and this win will have a pretty nice appeal in March.
But one win doesn't fix everything -- just like one week doesn't send the season off the rails. The Illini have to quickly change gears and get ready for VCU (6-1). The Rams are a very good defensive squad. And they love to press you the length of the court.
Illinois has some things to work on when it comes to their press-break. Groce said his team has been prepping for that since August. It didn't look like it against West Virginia, but they do it better than anyone.
Here's a chance to take a big step forward. Exhale. Take in another breath and get ready for a fight.