Illinois 64, VCU 46
Illinois coach John Groce said VCU shared some similarities with West Virginia. The start of Saturday's game against the Rams certainly seemed reminiscent of the Mountaineers' Thanksgiving blowout of the Illini.
Illinois made just one of its first 12 shots and trailed 11-3 almost eight minutes into the game.
But unlike against West Virginia, Illinois solved VCU's pressure, made shots and -- maybe most importantly -- made stops to help lead them to a quality neutral site win at the Hoophall Miami Invitational at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Leron Black tied a career-high with 18 points and added eight rebounds. Black was named the Hoophall Miami Invitational MVP after the performance.
Illinois (6-3) went on a 19-3 run to claim the lead to take a 22-14 lead. During that stretch, the Rams (6-2) went 7:15 without a field goal, missing nine straight shots.
During the final 12:01 of the first half, Illinois outscored VCU 28-10 to take a 31-21 halftime lead.
VCU then ran off an 11-0 run to trim the Illini lead to 35-34, but Illinois pulled away over the final 10 minutes thanks in part to four Coleman-Lands' two-point field goals.
VCU didn't score a field goal in the game's last 7:37. Illinois held VCU to 30.2 percent shooting and 46 points was the Rams lowest scoring output since a 60-40 loss to UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 4, 2005.
Illinois scored 23 points off 14 VCU turnovers, while VCU scored just six points off 10 Illini turnovers.
Despite a strong game from the starters, the Illini bench scored just five points, three of which came on a late-game desperation three from Jaylon Tate. VCU, meanwhile, had 27 bench points led by Mo Allie-Cox (10 points), the only Rams player to finish in double figures.
What it means
The Illini have momentum and confidence. Against Winthrop, they played not to lose down the stretch. Against Florida State, it made moremistakes down the strettch. It seemed to correct those mistakes against NC State. Against West Virginia, they played like the underdog -- allowing the Mountaineers to dictate the terms of the game. Against VCU, the Illini set the tone and pace. They made the Rams react to them, not the other way around.
Illinois still hasn't made up for last week's 0-3 week (mostly due to the bad Winthrop loss), but a 2-0 week with two quality wins for the NCAA Tournament resume certainly is creating more believers -- most importantly in that locker room.
What went right
Groce finally started his best five -- and the produced. He ditched Jaylon Tate as a starter for Jalen Coleman-Lands and the struggling Michael Finke for the red-hot Black. Groce wants to be a team that has a "strength in numbers," but he has to play the players who are producing. Right now, his new starting five is by far his best five.
Defense. What?! Yes, the Illini played good defense for most of the game. We saw shades of it against Florida State, but the halfcourt defense looked as it good as its been this season. VCU, a smaller team, was bothered by the Illini's length. Groce went to the 2-3 zone, which closed off some driving lanes. The Illini held VCU to a microscopic 0.73 points per possession.
The Illini (10 turnovers) took care of the ball. The Illini struggled mightily against West Virginia's tenacious full-court pressure, committing 24 turnovers. VCU wasn't as long as WVU and didn't pressure as much, but Illinois handled their pressure well.
Black is the Illini's second best player. He adds tenacity on the glass, and his midrange jumper is silky. He was a top-50 recruit for a reason, and he's playing like ti right now. Over the last three games, Black is averaging 16.0 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Coleman-Lands came up huge down the stretch and showed a new dynamic to his game -- scoring off the bounce. Coleman-Lands made a career-high five two-point fields goals. For context, his previous career high for two-point field goals made in a game was two. He came into the game 2-for-14 from inside the arc this season.
Abrams continues to be a sharpshooter. Yes, the man who shot 26.9 percent from three his first three seasons is now a sharpshooter. He made 3-of-3 threes and is now shooting 62 percent from three this season.
What went wrong
The Illini started 1 for 12 to start the game and had a four-minute scoring drought early in the second half. Scoring droughts will happen, but for Illinois it happens when their shot selection is poor. The Illini have too many streaks where they seem to lack focus and go one-on-one too much.
The bench. Illinois didnt get a point from its bench until Maverick Morgan made two free throws with 8:50 remaining in the second half. The bench was basically non-existent. Morgan and Michael Finke provided little in the post. Aaron Jordan committed a costly turnover. Te'Jon Lucas and Jaylon Tate both struggled at times against VCU's strong pressure defense, though Tate finished with four assists to one turnover. The starting lineup switch stole some firepower from the bench, but the Illini need more -- especially from Finke and Morgan.
Coleman-Lands is on a serious cold streak from beyond the arc. He's 3-for-18 from three his last four games, and all three of those makes came during the NC State win. He's taking mostly good ones, though, and you don't want him to stop shooting.
What is a charge? The officials certainly didn't seem to know as Malcolm Hill was called for two very questionable charge calls in the second half.
Illinois comes home to host IUPUI on Tuesday. The Jaguars (3-5) are coming off a win at Ball State, but they lost to Michigan by 12, Marquette by 2, SIU-Edwardsville by two and Illinois State by 14.