Still room to grow for Illinois

Still room to grow for Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood didn't mince words after Friday night's blowout victory against Southern.

Yes, Illinois played well, but the 47-point win came easily. The Illini ran what they wanted to run offensively, and they kept the Jaguars in check at the other end.

Underwood was curious about how the Illini would respond when the game didn't swing so heavily in their favor. What would they do when things went wrong? Illinois got the answer Sunday evening against Tennessee Martin.

A 19-point Illinois lead early in the second half was whittled to six with 11 minutes to play. The final 2:38 of the game went from a 12-point Illini advantage to UT Martin having the ball with 0.9 seconds on the clock and a chance to tie the game.

The Skyhawks' potential tying three-point attempt went wide right, and Illinois escaped with a 77-74 win in front of 11,882 spectators at State Farm Center.

"The first game we came to play 40 minutes," Illinois redshirt junior forward Michael Finke said. "The first half (against UT Martin) we got off to a little slow start, but I thought we closed the half really well. The second half we had some good spurts here and there, but we've got to learn to finish."

Underwood said he was pleased at the halftime break. Illinois was able to establish Leron Black early, and his 13 halftime points put him well on the way to setting a new career high with 23 points by the final buzzer. The Illini kept UT Martin from running its set offense effectively and finished the first half knocking down shots more consistently.

"He puts us all in the right spots to make plays," Black said of his approach. "I'm just trying to stay aggressive and make the plays the team needs me to make."

The end of the game upset Underwood more.

"Our passiveness bothered me late," Underwood said. "That's adversity. That's something we've got to grow from."

Illinois struggled against UT Martin's press. Underwood, who said he sees a press simply as "five guys trying to guard 94 feet," wants his teams to attack. The Illini didn't.

"We just played scared," Finke said. "Their press really got to us. We turned the ball over a little too much. ... That's on us players. We've got to be better with the ball and take care of it. That can't happen."

Rebounding issues might have bothered Underwood even more than struggling to advance the ball against the press.

"Late, I don't care if I have five point guards on the court," he said. "When you have to have a rebound and it's a fight in the paint we've got to come up with a rebound. They got every one. If we've got to go to the parking lot and figure out how to fight, we've got to learn to be combative in those moments.

"That ball has to be ours. We did that in the first half. The second half we saw a little resistance. That was a little bothersome, but we'll get that corrected."

The Illini ultimately made enough plays to win. Mark Smith (13 points), Finke (12) and Aaron Jordan (10 points) joined Black in double figures.

And strong defense on UT Martin's final baseline out of bounds play sent Skyhawks guard Matthew Butler well past the three-point line where all he could manage was an off-track heave.

"At the end of the day we're 2-0 moving forward," Finke said. "Especially with this one, I'd rather learn from a win than a loss for sure. We've got DePaul coming in here Friday, and we'll learn from these past two games."