UI basketball notes: 'Every day he seems to amaze me'

UI basketball notes: 'Every day he seems to amaze me'

CHAMPAIGN — Adonis De La Rosa joked after Illinois' practice Friday morning at State Farm Center that Davit Bezhanishvili, the older brother of Illini freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, needed to sit in the same seat Saturday that he occupied Tuesday night when Illinois upset No. 9 Michigan State.

Davit was back in that same seat Saturday afternoon for another Illini victory in the 99-94 overtime win against Rutgers. It was a third straight win for Illinois in its three-game homestand and a third straight with Davit in the stands during his 10-day trip to Champaign to visit his brother.

Giorgi was increasingly more productive with his brother in the State Farm Center stands. The 6-foot-9 forward had eight points in Illinois' win against Nebraska then 16 against Michigan State and a freshman record 35 to help the Illini outlast the Scarlet Knights.

"I love him, man," Giorgi said about Davit. "I have a really small family. For me, family is everything. To have him here for three games — we won three games — it's just a great feeling. Family's everything. That's what we're trying to do here. Family culture, that's what we're trying to build here — what we have already I think. Family is everything, man."

★ ★ ★

Illinois didn't get too complex offensively in the second half of Saturday's game. Once Bezhanishvili got rolling, the directive was clear.

"It just got to the point where coach asked us what we wanted to do and we said, 'Get the ball to Giorgi,'" said senior guard Aaron Jordan, who chipped in 10 points in the Illini win. "I know when he gets to a certain spot it's going in. That's what we need from him down the stretch. He steps up and plays a big role for us. He's very important.

"The first day he walked on campus, I just knew his personality, and I knew he was going to do great things. Every day he seems to amaze me and surprise me, but I'm proud of him."

A not too complex offense — centered around Bezhanishvili — was really just three plays for Illinois in the second half.

"We just kept mixing them up," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We literally ran three actions — two out of them out of our spread and one little set that we isolate one side of the floor. We weren't fancy. I'm one of those guys if it's not broke ... we just kept pounding the ball to him."

★ ★ ★

Trent Frazier added 17 points to go with Bezhanishvili's record-setting performance. The Illini sophomore guard was 5 of 9 from three-point range — his fifth game with at least five three-pointers this season and second in the last four games.

That's a significant departure from the three-game stretch where he went 3 of 16 against Florida Atlantic, Indiana and Northwestern at the end of December and beginning of January.

"You guys said he a had a shooting slump; I didn't," Underwood said. "Shooters miss shots occasionally. Trent's got an unbelievable swagger about him and confidence. ... That's why we love Trent. It's nice, yeah. Obviously, that's a big part of what we want to do, and it's a big part of his game is being able to knock down the three. It sets up his drive. Hope that continues."

★ ★ ★

Underwood opened his postgame comments with condolences for Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell, whose mother died Saturday.

"We sometimes forget this is a game," Underwood said. "My condolences and thoughts and prayers are with Steve. We wanted to let him know that the Illini fans and people are thinking about him on a tough day on which his team played really, really good."

★ ★ ★

Underwood said Illinois had "no answer" for Rutgers defensively Saturday afternoon. The Scarlet Knights are a 41.2 percent shooting team this season. That percentage jumped a bit after they shot 50.7 percent against the Illini.

"I thought we were in attack mode," Pikiell said. "I thought we did a good job of taking care of the ball for the most part against a team that causes a lot of turnovers."

Rutgers has been at the bottom of the Big Ten since it joined the conference for the 2014-15 season. The Scarlet Knights, however, have already set a new high with four Big Ten wins — with seven games to play — in Pikiell's third season.

"That's not Rutgers that we know or that you guys know," Underwood said. "Steve's building an incredible program as evidence by they're winning games. Those young kids — Geo Baker and (Caleb) McConnell and (Ron) Harper and (Montez) Mathis — those guys are young and they're good players. He's doing it with a big, physical style. They're as physical as any team in this league, and know those guys are starting to believe."

Rutgers has Big Ten wins against Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana this season. That the Scarlet Knights were able to go toe to toe Saturday with the Illini didn't surprise Jordan.

"Rutgers is a team that never stops playing," he said. "They're tough. They've been like that ever since they came to the Big Ten. We knew that, knowing they're going to throw punches. How much we've matured over time over the course of this season, we just knew we were going to take those punches. When the game went into overtime we said, 'Good, because we're built for this.'"

★ ★ ★

Ayo Dosunmu dunked for the first time Tuesday against Michigan State after turning a steal into two points at the other end. The 6-foot-5 freshman guard dunked again Saturday against Rutgers in another fast-break situation off a Frazier assist following a Scarlet Knights' turnover.

"My legs are getting back," said Dosunmu, who finished with 12 points in the win. "I've been doing a lot of squats, so you'll see a lot more."

★ ★ ★

Dosunmu wasn't the only Illini with a repeat individual performance Saturday. De La Rosa made it back-to-back games taking a charge, too. The 7-foot graduate transfer gave Illinois some good minutes in the first half before Bezhanishvili took over on the block in the second.

"During my whole career I've been a team guy," De La Rosa said. He finished with five points, three rebounds and a steal against the Scarlet Knights. "That's what it takes to win. I've been on teams that have won, and I've also been on teams that didn't have much success. We always knew that if we wanted to win somebody was going to do have to do that extra — dive on a loose ball, take an extra charge, rotate and help somebody out.

"That's just my thing. If I can't help the team in certain aspects, I can do other things to help. If it's taking a charge, then I'll take a charge."

★ ★ ★

Andres Feliz nearly made it five Illinois players in double figures with a nine-point effort Saturday. The 6-2 junior guard did most of his scoring at the free-throw line, making all five of his attempts. He shot just 2 of 9 from the field, though, and missed his only three-pointer after hitting a big shot from deep in Tuesday's win against Michigan State.

While Feliz was a 41.8 percent three-point shooter last season at Northwest Florida State, he's only hitting at 27.6 percent (8 of 29) for the Illini. Still, Underwood has confidence in his veteran guard.

"A lot of people have not respected how well he does shoot it," Underwood said. "We see that every day in practice. I'm not one to discourage taking open shots because I know he's a capable maker — not just a shooter. If people want to give him that, there's usually a price to pay. He is confident, and he practices a lot. He shoots a lot of balls. I've got a lot of confidence in him."

-