Illinois 71, Boise State 56
CHAMPAIGN - New Illinois coach Brad Underwood probably saw some positives of the roster he will inherit as he sat in athletic director Josh Whitman's suite during the Illini's 71-56 win over Boise State on Monday.
Leron Black, who earned his second straight double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), was a hound on the glass. Te'Jon Lucas (seven points, seven assists, six rebounds) could push the pace in his high-octane offense, while Jalen Coleman-Lands (6 points, 2-for-4 from three) is a sharpshooter who could thrive in his quick-triggered offense. And Kipper Nichols (five points, two rebounds) has the athleticism and tenacity Underwood desires, especially on defense.
But Underwood will have to wait to truly get to know his future players -- because after Monday's win in front of 5,713 at the State Farm Center, the Jamall Walker-led Illini have another game on the schedule. A week and a half after John Groce's firing, Illinois is still playing -- advancing to Wednesday's NIT quarterfinal at Central Florida, which defeated Illinois State at Redbird Arena on Monday.
The win gives Illinois 20 wins for the first time since the 2013-14 season and improves Jamall Walker's record to 2-0 as the interim coach.
In their final games at State Farm Center, Tracy Abrams led Illinois with 16 points (6-10 FG, 3-5 three), Maverick Morgan had 10 points and seven rebounds and Malcolm Hill added 13. Hill passed up Dee Brown (1,812 points) for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list.
Illinois claimed a 15-8 lead early, but Boise went on a 9-0 run to take the lead. Then it was the Illini's turn to get hot as they made six straight shots, including four threes, to take a 33-25 lead. But Duncan responded with a 9-0 personal run -- sinking three straight threes -- to take a 34-33 halftime lead.
The game went back and forth until the final 10 minutes as the Illini pulled away with a 15-2 run to take a 64-52 lead with 4:09 left.
Chandler Hutchinson led the Broncos with 17 points and eight rebounds. Nate Duncan added 12 points (4-10 three).
Underwood, who was officially introduced at a press conference on Monday, took to the State Farm Center court and waved to the crowd at halftime but did not give a speech.
What it means
Despite the awkwardness of a new coach overseeing a team that will look vastly different next season, the Illini remained focus and together. Almost all of the staffers will be gone by the end of next week. The seniors' careers will be over. Others on the roster may not wear an Illinois jersey next season. But this team is showing some pride. If they continue that, this team is talented enough to get to Madison Square Garden and maybe win this tournament.
What went right
Black was active on the boards. He's really committed the last couple games to focusing on the glass rather than his offense. When he does that, he's a heck of a force on the court. He struggled to finish around the hoop, but the energy and toughness was great.
The other underclassmen also played their roles well. Lucas was highly efficient with seven points on six shots and seven assists to one turnover. Nichols brought some energy, and Coleman-Lands took and made open shots.
Abrams has saved some of his best basketball for last. He is showing amazing heart and impacting the game in so many ways.
Hill got a big ovation for passing Brown for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list. He'd have to go on some kind of tear -- and play the maximum three games -- to pass up No. 2 Kiwane Garris (1,942 points).The defense honed in for the most
What went wrong
The Illini struggled to defend Duncan, who looked like he was picked up down the street at the ARC (formerly IMPE for us old people). The Illini failed to close out on him from three, which seemed to be a scouting error considering Duncan came into the game with 246 career threes.
Illinois scored just 10 points during a 10-minute stretch from late in the first half to midway through the second half. That probably won't happen much under Underwood.
Illinois travels to Orlando to play Central Florida at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The Illini are the higher seed, but the State Farm Center is unavailable due to a Broadway show previous scheduled. The Knights (23-11) won at Illinois State 63-62 on a controversial foul call in the closing seconds that gave UCF two game-winning free throws. The Knights have won eight of their last nine games and are one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking 18th in defensive efficiency and first in the country in two-point field goal percentage.