Illinois 85, IUPUI 77
CHAMPAIGN - For the second time in 15 days, Illinois sweated out a surprising surge from a mid-major opponent at the State Farm Center. Unlike a Nov. 21 overitme loss to Winthrop, Illinois found a way to survive and defeat IUPUI.
And Malcolm Hill was the reason.
The Illini senior star scored 23 of his game-high 32 points (on 11-for-18 shooting) in the second half, scoring 10 straight points during a critical three-minute stretch with under five minutes remaining.
IUPUI missed its final five shots of the game, including several open threes.
The game was tight throughout with Illinois (7-3) leading for 19:36 and IUPUI leading for 15:35. The game was tied for 4:49. The eight-point final was the largest of the second half.
Leron Black finished with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Matt O'Leary led the Jaguars with 25 points, while Darell Combs added 18 points.
Illinois started the game on a 10-0 run and looked ready to run away with an easy win. But IUPUI responded with 20-5 run and eventually took a 42-41 halftime lead.
IUPUI outscored Illinois in the paint 18-6 in the first half and kept the rebound battle close (29-28).
Illinois shot 55.1 percent from the field, including 7-for-16 from three, and made 24 of 30 free throws.
IUPUI shot 51.9 percent in the first half, but Illinois held them to 39.4 percent shooting in the second half.
What it means
Home court still doesn't mean what it used to for Illinois. Winthrop beat Illinois 15 days prior in overtime, and Illinois was in danger of another bad home loss. Illinois isn't good enough to coast against mid-major opponents. They didn't arrive with wins over NC State and VCU, two quality wins but teams that must battle to make the NCAA Tournament. No game is a gimme for this Illini crew. They can't afford to act like it.
What went right
Hill is an absolute star. When his team needed him most, he put them on his back and carried them. He can score in so many ways and wants the ball when it matters most.
Black continues to establish himself as the Illini's second best player.. The sophomore forward kept Illinois afloat early, scoring 12 of the Illini's first 24 points. He is an aggressive player beaming with confidence right now, especially in that silky mid-range jumper. He's averaging 16.0 points and 9.0 rebounds over his last four games.
Illini senior guard Tracy Abrams (seven points, six assists, four steals, three rebounds) just has a huge impact on the game. Illinois was a plus-21 when he was on the court. He makes little plays that matter so much. For example, after Black committed a turnover, he chased down the fastbreak layup and contested it. The IUPUI player missed the shot and the rebound led to a Hill three. Those are huge changes in the game that he makes more than anyone on this roster.
After going 3-for-18 from three the previous four games -- and making zero threes in three of those four games -- Jalen Coleman-Lands went 3-for-5 from three. But he attempted no shots in the second half.
Sophomore D.J. Williams showed more reasons why Illini Inquirer calls him "Flash." He scored five first-half points and was rewarded with early playing time in the second half. Though he had a costly travel call with under seven minutes remaining.
What went wrong
Rim protection and stopping dribble penetration. IUPUI scored at will in the lane and at the rim. The guards did a poor job of closing off driving lanes and the bigs didn't provide much of an impediment at the rim. The Illini also struggled to defend without foulin. After taking defensive strides against Florida State, NC State and VCU, the Illini took a huge step back on Tuesday.
Big-man play. The Illini strength was supposed to be in the post but Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne. IUPUI is one of the shorter teams in the country and the duo combined for just 13 points and four rebounds. Michael Finke (one point and two rebounds) also is in a rut. He has just six points on nine shot attempts during the last four games. His role has lessened due to Black's emergence and seems to be struggling with his role and confidence. It may be time to give Williams more of his minutes, though Williams must show consistency.
Turnovers. Illinois (15 turnovers for the game) had eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game and IUPUI scored 14 points off those turnovers.
Poor scouting report. O'Leary came into the game shooting 39.1 percent from three, and Illinois continually allowed him to shoot open threes in the pick-and-pop game.
Illinois will host Central Michigan at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Chippewas (8-2) are off to a solid start but have not beaten any top-125 KenPom teams yet this season. They lost 102-71 to St. Bonaventure. Central Michigan is one of the shortest teams in the country, so Illinois has a huge advantage in the paint. But CMU takes care of the ball really well (second in the country in turnover rate) and shoots well from three. Junior 5-foot-9 guard Marcus Keene is the nation's leading scorer (30.4 points per game), so Illinois can't let him go off like Keon Johnson, who scored 38 points in Winthrop's overtime win in Champaign last month.