CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini were in a scary spot down by three to IUPUI with less than eight minutes to go, but their senior superstar Malcolm Hill played superhero down the stretch to lift Illinois to an 85-77 win on Tuesday night.
Hill rescued the Illini with a game-high 32 points, including 21 in the second half. IUPUI led for more than 10 minutes in the first half, and they held a 42-41 halftime lead.
The Jaguars were up 66-63 at the under-eight timeout in the second half, but Hill hit a three to tie up the score one minute later. After an and-one hoop by Mike Thorne Jr. made it 71-68 Illinois, Hill scored 10 straight for the Illini.
"I think he sensed that we weren't great and then he needed to step up, and that's what he did," Illini head coach John Groce said. "That's what good players do. That's what great players do. And fortunately tonight, he did that."
IUPUI had multiple good looks from three with around 30 seconds left, which would have cut the Illini lead to one. But they were no good. Instead, Illinois was able to escape after allowing the Jaguars to shoot 45 percent from the field -- while senior big man Matt O'Leary lit them up for 25 points.
"Feel fortunate that we were able to get out of there with a win," Groce said. "They were really good offensively on film -- even better in person."
"We made too many mistakes defensively. Did not have the same edge that we had on Saturday. Just didn't think that we were able to capture that at any point in time on the defensive end of the floor."
The Illini certainly were not impressive in that aspect of the game. They did, however, shoot 55 percent from the field and went 24-of-30 from the free-throw line. Leron Black was the other Illinois player in double figures with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from Tuesday's narrow victory.
'Orange Mamba' saved the day
The Illini relied on Hill late like the Lakers once relied on vintage Kobe Bryant -- hence the given nickname of 'Orange Mamba' by Illini Inquirer (credit: JW).
It was as complex as this: Give Hill the ball and let him make a play. That's what he did. He was in a zone with drives to the hoop, pull-up jumpers and splashes from long range.
"He's a great player. One of the best players in the country. So we just got to get him the ball," Illini point guard Tracy Abrams said.
That's what you saw. It's not the first time Hill has needed to save the Illini from a lessor opponent hanging around too long at the State Farm Center. Northern Kentucky was tied with Illinois with less than 11 minutes to go, but Hill scored 29 of his 40 points in the second half to put an end to that.
Is it a great thing that Hill needed to do that again? Not necessarily, but it's better than them shining the 'Mamba signal' against Winthrop with no answer. That wasn't a problem on Tuesday.
"I thought he was just terrific," Groce said. "He wanted the ball. He made plays. He was aggressive. He attacked and he just made big-time shots."
Illini defense took a significant step back
With a chance to build some consistency and make continued progress defensively, Illinois failed that test. They did a very nice job of taking N.C. State and VCU out of their comfort zones, especially against the Rams on Saturday.
But on Tuesday, IUPUI was about as comfortable as can be with their offense. They shot 51.9 percent from the field in the first half, and 45 percent on the game. They hit eight three-pointers. They got into the paint.
Groce had a list of complaints in the postgame press conference, and for good reason. He noted that his team fouled jump-shooters, had poor communication on ball-screen action and did not position themselves well.
"I thought our mental energy was not great. Thought we made too many mistakes," Groce said.
In the first half, the Jaguars were getting layups. They had 18 of their 42 first-half points scored in the paint.
"They just scored too much in the paint," Hill said. "Once you get going from the inside, it just makes the outside a lot easier. That's kind of how we are. We have really good big men. Once they get going, that's when we start to get going on the outside -- on the perimeter. So we kind of got hit with our own medicine tonight, honestly."
Illinois allowed O'Leary to hit four threes, and he had at least a few that were wide open off the pick 'n pop. That almost seemed like a scouting report error given that the big man was shooting 39 percent from deep heading into the game. But the Illini kept over-hedging the screen with their bigs with little/no rotation back to the screener.
There were also instances where the Illini did not get enough help defense on the driver. And against the zone, IUPUI got the ball inside to collapse the defense and kick it outside.
The Illini were disruptive at the defensive end against VCU. They forced turnovers and they took away what the Rams wanted to do, which was attack off the dribble and get into the lane.
"Whenever we play really well on defense -- like we did last game -- that's when we show how good we can really be," Hill said.
It wasn't shown on Tuesday.
Abrams making winning plays
The Illini couldn't ask for much more than what they're getting out of Abrams right now. After missing two straight seasons, he's averaging double figures in points, playing more than 27 minutes per game and shooting 58.1 percent from three. Are you kidding me?
Abrams made just two shots on Tuesday night, but his impact was felt in a big way. He finished with seven points, six assists, four steals and three rebounds in 31 minutes. The savvy veteran just makes winning plays at both ends of the floor.
No player registered a higher plus/minus with Abrams finishing at +21 on the game. He was +15 against VCU and +14 against N.C. State. During that stretch, he averaged 11 points, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game -- and he shot 11-of-20 from the field.
Remember what it felt like to be starved for a Big Ten point guard of starter quality? Illinois has one, and he has been extremely valuable.
Leron looks like a rising star
Another game, another stat-stuffing outing for Black. He finished with 16 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday. In the last four games, he has totaled no fewer than 15 points and eight rebounds.
"He just brings a whole 'nother dimension to the game," Hill said. "I say it all the time; 'Every great team has that one crazy person'. And he's our crazy guy -- not in a bad way though. Just because he brings so much energy and physicality. It lifts me up, personally."
Black and Hill have been a dynamic duo of sorts during Illinois' three-game winning streak. Black has been playing well since he touched the court against Winthrop. He's averaging 13.3 points and 8.2 rebounds, while shooting 50.2 percent from the field.
It's early, but it's hard not to see some sort of resemblance to Wisconsin's Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Nigel Hayes. As a sophomore, Hayes averaged 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds, while shooting 49.7 percent. Black has to keep up this production through a Big Ten season, but he looks like one of the league's feature players of the future right now.
His energy and toughness are infectious. He is a huge asset for the Illini on the glass. And his mid-range game continues to look mighty pure.
Bench has been weak
For as much as we talked about depth with this team early on, Illinois' bench has been very disappointing recently. They did not give the Illini a whole lot against VCU, and the same could be said on Tuesday.
D.J. Williams returned to action after playing just two minutes in the previous three games. He didn't play at all against VCU. Williams had five points in eight minutes, and Groce liked what he saw.
"I thought he was the most productive guy off the bench in the first half in terms of making the fewest mistakes defensively, and then obviously, he made a couple baskets," Groce said. "A good step in the right direction. Hopefully, he can build on it."
As for the bench as a whole, Illinois needs more. Maverick Morgan gave the Illini six points and two blocks in 16 minutes. One of those blocks was big late. But he had just one rebound.
Jaylon Tate had two points, two turnovers and a steal in 12 minutes. Te'Jon Lucas had two assists and a turnover in 11 minutes. Michael Finke had one point and two rebounds in 13 minutes. And Aaron Jordan played three minutes.
"I thought Williams was good. But those other guys didn't play up to their potential tonight coming off the bench. Tate got going a little bit within his role in the second half and did his job," Groce said. "They weren't as good as we need 'em to be."
Finke is clearly the most concerning. He has six points (1-of-9) and 11 rebounds in 61 minutes combined over the last four games. He has been porous defensively, and that's not necessarily something new. His rebounding was better at the start of the season, but he's not a plus-rebounder right now. And he has struggled to make shots or find any offensive flow.
The Illini need him to figure it out. And they should hope that Williams can build some confidence. He has more ability than Jordan, but he needs to be reliable on defense and on the glass to sustain minutes from game to game.