UI basketball notes: 'That's what makes basketball special'

UI basketball notes: 'That's what makes basketball special'

CHAMPAIGN — Lou and Mary Henson lounged in a pair of chairs sitting across from the UNLV sideline during Saturday's Illinois men's basketball game, an eventual 77-74 victory for the Illini over the Rebels.

The former Illinois coach and his wife popped up on the video board at State Farm Center during the first media timeout as well, drawing waves of applause of a chorus of long "Lou" chants.

A group of Illini basketball alumni, headed by Rod Cardinal, Steve Lanter and Larry Lubin, donated funds to create the Lou and Mary Henson Men's Basketball Academic Assistance Fund, which was announced Friday.

This pocket of money will be used to establish scholarships for Illini hoopsters who want to earn their undergraduate degrees after their playing days.

Cardinal and many other former players lined up along the court Saturday in recognition of this fund.

The moment reminded current Illinois leader Brad Underwood of a reason he left Oklahoma State for Champaign in 2017.

"There's few programs in the country that have the prestigious history and tradition that this one does," Underwood said. "For those guys to know this place is home, to be able to rekindle friendships, tell stories about games that happened, that's what makes basketball so special."

★ ★ ★

Freshman Samba Kane's first extended stretch of action for the Illini came at a fun time for him personally.

He got to line up across the floor from UNLV's Cheikh Mbacke Diong, another native of Dakar, Senegal. The two attended Florida Prep Academy together, with Mbacke Diong graduating a year sooner.

"It felt great," Kane said. "Before the game, I texted him. We both had a dream to come to the States and play basketball here. And we're playing against each other now. That's a great feeling."

Underwood described Mbacke Diong, who finished with a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double, as "a motored-up young man."

"It was a kid for them that just runs like crazy," Underwood said. "To see his improvement ... excites me about what the future can hold for Samba."

Kane's 16 minutes of court time Saturday came at the expense of graduate Adonis De La Rosa, who didn't leave the bench.

Underwood said afterward that De La Rosa is healthy, and that he felt Kane matched up better with UNLV's imposing frontcourt of 6-foot-11 Mbacke Diong, 6-9 Joel Ntambwe and 6-7 Shakur Juiston.

"Samba gives us rim protection. He gives us a runner," Underwood said. "We feel comfortable with him rim-rolling and finishing."

For Kane's part, he's glad to hear Underwood calling his number, regardless of the situation.

"It means a lot. That means Coach trusts me for this game," said Kane, who averaged 6.2 minutes per tilt entering Saturday. "It meant the world for me."

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Redshirt junior Kipper Nichols told the media Saturday he felt UNLV challenging Illinois down the stretch was beneficial to the hosts.

Underwood featured an alternate perspective.

"You have to take charge in those moments," he said. "We experienced that last year, and I do think we may have grown up this year."

Underwood felt the player who best took control as Illinois' double-digit lead slipped away late was junior Andres Feliz.

And not just because of his game- and career-high 19 points.

At one point during the Rebels' rally, Feliz committed a turnover that quashed a possession in which Illinois could have taken precious seconds off the clock.

Feliz's response?

"Dre was in the timeout huddle accepting it," Underwood said.

★ ★ ★

Ayo Dosunmu experienced another trying outing in his 10th college start.

The freshman drained 10 points on 4 of 10 shooting, missing all four of his tries from distance and converting just 2 of 4 free throws.

The guard also committed five turnovers, though he did contribute five rebounds and three assists.

Sophomore Trent Frazier understands Dosunmu's predicament.

There's an adjustment process, even for a guy coming from a state-championship high school like Morgan Park.

"He's going through the same thing I went through last year," said Frazier, who contributed eight points and five rebounds to Saturday's victory despite still feeling the effects of a hard fall he took in Wednesday night's loss to Ohio State.

"He's a great player," Frazier continued. "No doubt he's going to figure it out."

Underwood is letting Dosunmu work through the college growing pains. Dosunmu was on the floor nearly 27 minutes Saturday, trailing only Frazier and Aaron Jordan in that category.

Frazier feels Dosunmu already carries himself like "a winner," so it's just a matter of getting his shots to fall.

"That's the thing I like about him," Frazier said. "I know he can shoot the ball anytime. I'm not really worried about him. I know he'll figure it out."

★ ★ ★

On a typical Saturday in December, Illinois men's basketball would be the hot ticket in Champaign-Urbana.

Not so this time around, as the Illini volleyball program was vying for a Final Four spot next door at Huff Hall.

And coach Chris Tamas' program came through during a four-set victory over Wisconsin.

Thing is, attendance hasn't been great for Underwood's crew regardless of what else is going on in a given day.

The figure was 11,755 versus Evansville on Nov. 8 and 11,706 against Mississippi Valley State a few weeks later. State Farm Center holds 15,500 for basketball.

An announced showing of a little more than 12,000 at State Farm on Saturday appeared to fall short of that in the upper deck. And that was before some folks departed early to get to Huff Hall.

Frazier knows there's a fine line between using this as motivation and becoming bogged down by it.

"I don't want some of the young guys, new guys, to get the wrong message," he said. "'Well, we're losing. No one's going to be at our games. People will be bashing us.' I don't want to get that in the young guys' heads."

State Farm Center, though not full, was far from empty. The Orange Krush student section was fiery as ever.

There's still passion surrounding the 3-7 outfit. That's what Frazier wants his teammates to remember.

"We have an unbelievably supportive cast here," he said. "Illini Nation is incredible, and I always appreciate the support and all the games they come to."