MIAMI -- In a game that resembled a bare-knuckled brawl with more guts than glamor, Illinois (6-3) outlasted VCU and threw the knockout punches down the stretch in a 64-46 win at AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday.
The resilient Illini came back from an 11-4 deficit within the first eight minutes of the game -- in which they missed 10 of their first 11 shots -- to close the first half on a 27-to-10 run.
But VCU battled back with an 11-0 run early on in the second half, and the game was hanging in the balance with Illinois leading 44-40 with less than eight minutes to play. But from there, the Illini closed on a 20-to-6 stretch that sealed the game and notched their second quality win of the week on the resume.
"Obviously, a great program win. I'm happy for our guys. The way they responded over the last week in the two games against N.C. State and VCU with where we were at last week," Illini head coach John Groce said. "We certainly haven't arrived by any means. I think we have an even higher ceiling. But we took steps in the right direction this week."
The Illini were led by redshirt-sophomore forward Leron Black, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds on his way to being named game MVP at the HoopHall Invitational. Malcolm Hill (16) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (12) also scored in double figures.
Illinois shot 43.1 percent from the field and 50 percent in the second half. They were effective in getting to the free throw line in both halves, as they went 14-of-21 from the stripe. On the other side, the Illini held VCU to just a 30.2 percent mark from the field, and they were 2-of-18 from beyond the arc.
Illini fight has them in flight
The character of a team is revealed in adversity, and that's exactly what the Illini faced after dropping three games in five days just two weeks into the season. How would they respond?
Were they tough enough to battle through it? And could they find answers in a hurry? They answered both questions with a resounding 'yes'.
"This was a great win for us. I think it shows what type of team we are. I think we've shown a lot of resiliency," Hill said. "This should help build our confidence."
Confidence wasn't an issue for this team heading into the season. They knew they had talent. They knew they had depth. They knew they had experience. But it's safe to say they didn't know their backs would be against the wall so soon.
Since then, Illinois' energy, intensity and fight have been at a winning level.
"We wanted to respond to that the right way. Play better. Max out every day of practice. Look at the film," Groce said. "Make sure our minds and hearts are in the right place -- that we still believe in each other and we're still playing for each other."
Groce gave sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams the majority of the credit for the team's mindset and buy-in. Not to mention, he's playing at a high level -- totaling nine points, six rebounds and four assists on Saturday.
"Abrams' voice with the messaging -- not only when we're around in meetings, but when we're not around. That's what's most important," Groce said. "For 20 hours a day-plus, we're not around them. What message is being sent? And I feel very comfort with the message that is being sent by our older crew to our team."
VCU is a scrappy team. They want to out-tough you. They want to outlast you. But they didn't manage that against the Illini.
"We got exactly what we deserved this game. Soft," VCU head coach Will Wade told his bench in the closing moments.
Making that kind of team look soft says something.
Defense set the tone
The Illini certainly had their moments offensively. Hill was feeling it with big shots. Abrams splashed a trio of threes to put him at 62.2 percent from deep on the season. Coleman-Lands converted clutch field goals down the stretch.
But Illinois' victory push was spearheaded by their defensive effort. The Illini were flat out stingy when they needed to be.
It was a four-point game at the under-eight media timeout. Illinois did not allow VCU to score a basket after that huddle broke, as the Rams went 0-for-6 with three turnovers in the final 7:20 of the game.
The effectiveness of the Illini defensive was a product of effort, vastly-improved execution and a well-prepared game plan. Groce mixed zone and man with success. The 2-3 zone was especially effective in keeping the attacking Rams out of the lane, which force them to shoot outside jumpers.
Groce called it a step in the right direction.
"About a week ago, I thought we were hit and miss with it. Now, this past week, I think we've started to grab ahold of it," he said.
Coming into the game, it was VCU's defense that drew the attention. They're known for their pressure, and Illinois was terrible in handling pressure against West Virginia.
But the Illini finished with six steals compared to two for VCU -- a team that came in averaging more than nine per game. Illinois got 23 points off turnovers.
"We finished so well because we defended so well," Hill said.
That's refreshing for Illini fans to hear.
JCL was clutch as can be
Coleman-Lands is a three-point sniper by nature, but that is not where his ceiling ends. We've all said that developing his off-the-dribble game is the next step for the promising sophomore, and he picked a great time to make huge strides.
It started with a back-down move and fadeaway jumper with 6:28 to go to put Illinois up 46-40. Yes, a two-point basket. And he had more.
Coleman-Lands converted three big-time lay-ins in a span of one minute and 21 seconds, which opened up a 54-43 lead with just 3:13 to go. He executed each move like a savvy veteran -- using patience and poise to shot-fake and finish.
Illinois' sharpshooter missed all five of his three-point attempts. He was 1-of-7 from the field before making his last four shots. He stayed confident and made crucial plays to give Illinois a big win.
Leron keeps bringing the heat
Black is the fire for Groce's team, and he continued his heatwave in Miami. He's been nothing short of outstanding, and his team-high 18 points and eight rebounds were huge on Saturday.
"He's a warrior. He gives you a physical and mental toughness to your team, along with Tracy," Groce said.
He also gives you what has been a deadly mid-range jumper. Black is shooting 49 percent from the field, while averaging 12.8 points and eight boards per game.
"It's just a blessing to be able to be out there and play. Just being able to play with my teammates," Black said. "I play well off other players. I think that's how I get myself going."
Boy, has he been going. Most thought Black could be an X-factor for this team once he returned. He garnered great reviews in practice. We still remembered that he was a top-50 get for Groce. But no one has expected him to be this good this soon.
Groce has talked quite a bit about his maturation in a number of areas, and that has been apparent thus far. And Black showed maturity late on Saturday. He picked up his third foul with just less than 17 minutes to go in the second half. But he didn't foul once after that -- allowing him to stay on the court for 30 minutes in total.
Forcing any opponent to face that kind of effort, toughness and production for 30 minutes is a handful.
More from the bench
Groce decided to start his best five on Saturday, and while Mike Thorne Jr. had just four points and three boards in 13 minutes, the other four starters all answered the call in a big way.
But Illinois needs the bench to be productive to maximize their capability. The Illini had just five bench points against VCU in 64 combined minutes for the reserves. They made one bucket, and that was a three by Jaylon Tate with five seconds to go in the game.
Maverick Morgan had two points and two boards in 23 minutes. He played some solid defense, but he hurt more than helped on the glass. Michael Finke didn't score and had two rebounds in 12 minutes. He's been largely ineffective in the last three ballgames.
Te'Jon Lucas played five minutes, and he didn't look comfortable after a bad turnover in the first half. Aaron Jordan played seven minutes and totaled a pair of rebounds. And D.J. Williams was summoned to the bench once again. He needs a shot of confidence in a hurry.
The Illini have to get more out of their second unit going forward.