Kane, Feliz offer welcomed boost for Illini basketball


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CHAMPAIGN — Expectations are hard to form with the current Illinois men's basketball team.

The Illini go from nearly knocking off then-No. 3 Gonzaga to slogging through losses with Iowa State and Xavier.

They jump from narrowly missing a win at Notre Dame to losing by double-digits at Nebraska.

So fans could expect only one thing when Brad Underwood's crew hosted UNLV last Saturday.

The unexpected.

That's exactly what they got when junior guard Andres Feliz and 7-foot freshman big man Samba Kane played critical roles in a 77-74 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak for Illinois (3-7).

Since the Illini's Nov. 13 home game versus Georgetown, Feliz hadn't cracked double figures in the scoring column.

Through Illinois' first nine outings, Kane played more than two minutes just once.

Against the Runnin' Rebels, Feliz logged a team-best 19 points while Kane saw action in 16 minutes off the bench and scored eight points.

"I think this one was a very good win," Feliz said. "But we need to keep working hard ... and stick together as a team."

"I felt really good because I see the way my teammates support me," Kane added. "I know I don't have a lot of playing time ... but I just have to understand what I'm doing."

Each Illini newcomer looked entirely competent against UNLV.

Kane caused more trouble for the Rebels in the paint than Giorgi Bezhanishvili, as Kane added a pair of blocks to his 4-of-5 shooting clip.

Underwood made it clear after Illinois' first triumph in nearly two weeks that getting Kane more involved was never off the table, despite the freshman's limited minutes thus far.

"I've never thought one second about redshirting him," Underwood said. "He's been better in practice, putting things together in practice. It's reactionary stuff."

A big reason for Kane's increased usage, Underwood said, was to battle speedy UNLV forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong, a former teammate of Kane's at Florida Prep.

What Underwood wasn't anticipating was Kane slamming down a couple big dunks and generally faring well with possession.

"I was shocked as heck to see him fake the handoff in the pinch post (then) turn down the lane," Underwood said. "Gosh, maybe we're developing an offensive threat there."

Feliz came up big as well. Trent Frazier dealt with a nagging tailbone injury he sustained last Wednesday against Ohio State, and Ayo Dosunmu fought through bouts of inconsistency in the Illini backcourt.

Feliz responded with numerous drives straight to the rim, catapulting him to a season high in points on 7-of-11 shooting.

"I had a long talk with Dre ... and it's maturity and his experience we need," Underwood said of the junior college transfer. "He's so efficient — very, very good midrange shooter, going to make the occasional three — but (Saturday), I thought he did everything he needed to do."

One element of the Feliz/Kane explosion that may go overlooked — simply because Illinois badly needed this win — was that neither guy had his name announced over the public-address system before tipoff.

Kane was the first reserve up, and Feliz followed him a short while after.

There's no indication their separate performances against UNLV will make Underwood change his lineup this Saturday when East Tennessee State (8-3) visits State Farm Center for a 1 p.m. tipoff.

But it at least allows him the comfort of having some extra options to turn to in dicey situations.

"You guys all worry about who I start," Underwood said. "You get that production from (Feliz) off the bench and Samba off the bench, that's a really good day."

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).