After losing three games in disappointing fashion, Illinois (13-8, 3-5) came out firing last night and picked up a much-needed home victory, coming at the expense of the struggling Iowa Hawkeyes (11-10, 3-5) by a final score of 76-64.
Illinois needed a fast start, and they did just that, starting the game off on a 10-0 run thanks to some great three point shooting and some solid defense in the paint. Illinois rode the momentum through the first half to a 16 point halftime lead, with 12 of those coming from Mike Finke, and specifically, the Fink3. The Big Ten’s leading scorer Peter Jok was held to just 4 points in the first half, finishing the game with only 10.
This game was not without struggles for the Illini, as Iowa managed to climb back into the game in the second half, narrowing the margin to 9 points with a little under 4 minutes to play. Illinois’s shooting proved to be too much for the Hawkeyes, as they would pull away for the victory.
Te’jon: You’re prayers have been answered Illini fans, Te’jon Lucas started tonight. In what seemed like what should have been the move about 3 weeks ago, JG inserted TJL into the starting rotation tonight and he made the most of his opportunity. Six points, six assists, two steals, and two turnovers. I’m totally fine with Te’jon committing a turnover or two a game if it means he’s going to consistently have a half dozen or more assists per game. When you’re as talented a passer as Te’jon is, some of your passes are going to get intercepted, particularly at the freshman level. Te’jon has become THE crowd favorite at SFC. From the ovations he gets when subbed in, to the groans from the fans when he gets subbed out for Tracy or Jaylon, it’s evident this kid is the future of the guard position. One might wonder what it’s going to be like next year with him, Trent Frazier, and Jeremiah Tilman?
Finke: When asked about his shooting after the game, Finke simply responded: “Shooters shoot.” The 17 points are awesome, but I’m a big fan of the 5 boards he brought down tonight. Illinois has struggled to rebound ever since the departure of Nnanna Egwu. I liked the physicality I saw from Mike on the defensive end, and of course the firepower he possessed on the offensive end. As long as you’re hot, keep shooting.
Leron: I liked how Leron was smart tonight. We’ve seen him get aggressive and frustrated at times, picking up silly fouls or taking ill-advised shots. His mid-range jumper was falling, he picked up seven boards, and I thought he played an energetic, yet smart game.
Malcolm: Hill put up a quiet 11, scoring in double digits yet again. Tonight, he didn’t have to take over the game due to the nature of the wire-to-wire victory for the Illini, but I still would love to see more of that aggressiveness and NBA potential from him when his team is building up a lead in the first half.
What I loved: Te’jon started! It was long overdue, but at least we’re getting it now, and not in preseason game number one next year. The energy tonight looked spot on, and like a team that was playing in a must win game. The key is being able to keep that effort and intensity up when mightier opponents come to town.
What I hated: After a great first half, Illinois seemed to regress in the second half. Granted, you probably won’t be able to shoot 80% from three and 60% from the field in the entire game, but I would like to see Illinois put their foot on the pedal when they have a second half lead, and not allow teams to climb back into the game. Even when the lead went down to single digits with a couple of minutes, I was confident Iowa would not be able to bail themselves out of this one, but you would like to see Illinois play a more solid defensive second half.
Bonus thing I hated: Three minutes into the game the Illini are up 10-0. So what does Groce do? He subs out the likes of TJL, JCL, and LB for guys like Tracy and Tate. Why John, why?You’re three minutes into the game and have all the momentum on your side. The players aren’t tired yet, and they’re playing great basketball. Ride the run out before going to the bench. I think the rigidity of the rotations and inconsistencies involved with it are at the top of fan’s frustrations this season.
Overall: This was a must-win game for Illinois because it was at home, and against a clearly inferior opponent. I won’t blow this game out of perspective because of who we played and because of our last three games. Do this against teams like Wisconsin, or Minnesota or NU? Then we can make more of a big deal out of these victories. But for now, it’s a bottom-half B1G team beating a bottom-half-slightly-better B1G team.
What’s next: Illinois travels to Penn State (3-5, 11-10) for a 3:30 tip this Saturday against the Nittany Lions.