Tate: Fresh start works wonders
Sunday’s merciful end to an eight-game losing streak cast a refreshing light on the Illini basketball operation.
The remainder of this 14-10 season will be viewed differently in the wake of a 60-55 win at Penn State because the freshmen have earned, for the first time, a key role in pressurized finishes.
The plebes were coming off one of their least-impressive performances in the 75-63 home loss Tuesday to Wisconsin, playing collectively 45 minutes and contributing five points, four rebounds, two assists and nine fouls. In the previous road game at Indiana, they went 4 of 15 from the field with six turnovers.
Who could have imagined Sunday that the season-long scoring leaders — Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand — would go without a point in a first half that ended 31-31? Bertrand never did score, and Abrams made up for two earlier misses by converting two free throws at :12.
The freshmen took over, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill handing coach John Groce a reward for their first start ... a triumph that drew Illinois even with the Nittany Lions at 3-8 in the Big Ten cellar.
Five UI plebes, used previously only as subs, broke out with 23 points and 12 rebounds in the first half alone, and finished with 38 of the 60 points on 14-for-26 shooting while committing one turnover.
Nunn had been somewhat consistent of late, scoring at least four points in the last 11 games but hadn’t attained double figures before catching fire with 19 in 31 minutes, by far his longest stint.
In combining for 30 points, Nunn and Hill matched the experienced 1-2 punch of Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier.
This isn’t the same Newbill that Illinoisans saw in the 75-55 UI romp in Champaign, the Newbill who was ejected for whacking Nunn on the back of the head. The talented Philadelphian, who spent a season at Southern Mississippi before returning home, was in an early-January funk, and went scoreless in the follow-up game against Minnesota as he fouled out in 14 minutes.
He’s been on a roll ever since with 135 points in seven games, and received Big Ten honors a week ago. It appeared at times that he would be too much for the Illini to handle Sunday, but that was before the Big Thaw.
To be fair, these teams competed impressively in a seesaw contest for 30 minutes. Penn State jumped out 16-7, the Illini roared ahead 31-22 before Frazier went on a binge, and the scoring pace continued hot and heavy.
Just think: 50 points in 30 minutes isn’t bad. But then came the Big Thaw. Both teams wobbled in the home stretch.
After Newbill’s 15-footer sent Penn State ahead 52-49 with 9:44 to go, the Nittany Lions produced one free throw in the next 9:30. That’s all. In slightly less than a quarter of play, they missed six shots, had two others blocked by Nnanna Egwu, committed two turnovers and missed two free throws.
You’d never say the Illini backed in, not when they were playing such stern defense, but they needed every stop. They regained the lead, 53-52, on baskets by Hill and Nunn outside the 5-minute mark, got a free throw from Rice at 4:21, and breathed easy when Nunn’s clutch trey created a 57-53 margin at :22.
Look again. In that crucial 91/2 minutes leading into the waning seconds (Newbill scored a layup at :14), the home team produced a single point, and the only Illini field goals on either side came from Nunn and Hill.
There’s significance here, in that Groce has been reluctant to use his freshmen in late-game situations. Said the coach:
“The decision to start them was made two days ago. It was a combination of two things. Nunn and Hill are making fewer defensive mistakes, and it gave us experience off the bench with Joe (Bertrand) and Jon (Ekey). We gave 10 players double-digit minutes and we needed every one of them to contribute.”
The Illini Nation outcry is clear: Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead with those athletic rookies.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.