CHAMPAIGN — Omar Payne was well aware about how Trent Frazier could take control of a game offensively even before he transferred to Illinois.
So Frazier dropping 29 points during the 25th-ranked Illini’s 81-71 win at Nebraska on Tuesday night, including 20 in the second half, was nothing new.
Payne had seen it all before five years ago as a high school sophomore when his Kissimmee (Fla.) Osceola team was on the receiving end of a Frazier heater before the left-handed guard got to Illinois.
“I knew he’s a guy that can catch fire,” Payne said Tuesday night in Lincoln, Neb. “Getting 29 doesn’t really surprise me. That’s the type of player he is. Low key the same dude (as in high school). The last time I played him before I came to college, he had 30.”
Frazier actually had 32 points for Wellington (Fla.) during that Class 9A FHSAA state semifinal matchup against Osceola. Payne, a sophomore, had three points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks for the Kowboys, who went on to win a state title.
Frazier has always had that scorer’s mentality. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard was Illinois’ second-leading scorer as a freshman. Then he put that part of his game to the side — at least somewhat — to turn into one of the top defenders in the Big Ten.
But that inner scorer was never put away completely. It’s something Illinois has had to lean on at times this season.
Like Tuesday at Nebraska.
Or last week against Maryland when Frazier went on a personal 11-0 run during the second half to help the Illini pull away from the Terrapins.
“He’s really got that knack,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said — even if the Illini haven’t always relied on Frazier’s scoring ability. “A year ago, we had Ayo (Dosunmu). Now, it’s him. We got him good looks early in the Nebraska game, and he had a couple that didn’t go in. That’s the beauty of Trent. It doesn’t bother him. He knows he can get on those burners and get going any time. He’s got that sense. When he feels it, maybe it’s taken me a while, but I like to keep going to him.”
Frazier is averaging 14.7 points since he missed the UT Rio Grande Valley game on Nov. 26. Shooting 41 percent from three-point range has helped, and those are the shots that are falling when he’s on the proverbial heater.
“It’s incredible, man, what he does just taking over and getting on those heaters,” Illinois junior center Kofi Cockburn said. “Every time I see it, it’s like it’s new to me and I’m in awe just watching him. Just watch my face after he shoots it. I’m always smiling. It’s a joy just watching him do what he does.
“It’s important to us, because when we have games where we’re not shooting it well and he can get on a heater and do what he does, it uplifts the team and gives us a different vibe.”
Frazier said he’s played with confidence on the offensive end in the last month-plus. He’s not pressing and instead trusting his instincts at that end of the court.
It’s allowed him to be more aggressive coming off ball screens and shooting and more aggressively taking pull-up threes in transition.
Especially if he’s seen a couple fall already.
“I know when I hit two in a row the, next one’s going up for sure, because I’m on a heater,” Frazier said. “Those are moments I tend to be a little bit more aggressive just knowing where I’m at in the game. ... I find where I can be aggressive and use my advantage — my shooting, my speed — to take advantage on offense.”
Frazier hasn’t let up defensively despite his renewed offensive efforts. It’s still the part of the game he takes the most pride in considering the improvement he has made since his first two seasons. Last season was Frazier’s statistical best defensively. This season so far has been his most balanced.
“It’s great to see Trent do what he does offensively, because on defense he’s always locked in,” Illinois sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins said. “He’s a great leader for us, a great senior, and he knows the game well.
“I think last year he got kind of caught in having to guard the best point guards, and he didn’t really get looked at for as great of an offensive player as he was. In the past, he got to score a lot on offense, but the team wasn’t that good. Now, he’s on a great team, and he can do it on both ends. He gets to prove that now.”
Frazier was more proud of his defensive effort Tuesday at Nebraska than he was his 29-point game. Just a single point shy of him matching his career high, Frazier was 5 of 8 from the field, hit both of his three-pointers and made 8 of 9 free throws in his 20-point second half.
But forcing Nebraska guard Alonzo Verge Jr. to take 13 shots to score 14 points stuck with Frazier more. Taking on that defensive mindset was what was necessary in the past few seasons.
“I enjoy winning,” Frazier said. “I do whatever it takes to win. I wasn’t so much focused on my points going down. I did whatever it took to win games. That transition to the defensive side, I excelled at that. I had fun every night guarding the other team’s best player. I felt like that was me scoring two points every time I got a stop.
“I had to step up and have the ball in my hands more (this season), but it’s all about making the right play, the right read. Coaches call a lot of plays — high-ball screen plays — where I excel at, and I make the right play and the right read. Just continue to be aggressive in those positions, in those moments. I’ve been really successful, so I’ve got to keep doing that.”