Over six minutes and fifty-two seconds in the second half, Illinois put Hampton in a strangle hold. During that span the Illini forced 5 turnovers and went on a 15-0 run, effectively killing any hope the visitors had of victory. Over the last 12 minutes of the game the Pirates would score just 15 points of their own as Illinois came away with the win, 73-55.
Outside of that run, though? Illinois didn’t look its best. And John Groce knew it.
“We’re still not there yet…we have a long way to go to get everyone playing their role at an NBA all-star level,” he said.
To translate that coach-speak: Illinois has to play better as a team to not be at basement-of-the-Big-Ten level.
For stretches of the game Illinois wasn’t taking care of the basketball, leading to a season-high 16 turnovers. In the paint the Illini continued to flounder, losing out on offensive rebounds 7-15 and in points in the paint 8-22, with the only redeeming fact being the 26 free throws (22 of which were made) the team earned by driving the lane.
But, even though some of those team performances were below par, several Illini had solid individual games. Kendrick Nunn was the most impressive player on the court, scoring a new career-high 16 points efficiently (6/9 on field goals), adding 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Nnanna Egwu also had a good game, scoring 10 with 5 rebounds and 5 blocks. And Rayvonte Rice did his thing once again, scoring 12 and providing the team with a spark when it needed it in the second half.
Not all the good performances were easily identified on the stat sheet, though. Jaylon Tate, for instance, was arguably the best point guard on the floor because he did more to make plays happen. His aggressiveness in driving the lane, a newer aspect to his game, helped him get to the free throw line for 8 shots. He made all 8 and gave the offense a new dimension. Likewise, Leron Black’s offensive talent was not quite there tonight, but he grabbed 8 rebounds, including a few that were really tough and physical.
But good individual play translated to about 6:52 of outstanding team play. If Illinois had played the whole game like it did during the 15-0 run the final score would have been a punchline.
John Groce knows this. After the game he said his team had its shortest practice of the year on Tuesday because of finals, yet he was still able to try more zone defense in this game. Now that’s on tape and the team can see their mistakes and clean it up before playing a better opponent. So, while there’s still work for Illinois to do, at least the changes seem to be happening.