Illinois men's basketball vs. Nicholls State in their season opener at State Farm Center in Champaign on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
Illini show rebounding prowess, but have work to do ahead of tough stretch
Our beat writer breaks down the quick hits and hands out grades to both teams after the Illini's 78-70 win in overtime.
CHAMPAIGN — Trent Frazier saved his best for when it mattered most for the Illinois men’s basketball team.
Two free throws — his first of what would only be four points of the night — to tie Tuesday’s season opener against Nicholls State with 29 seconds to play in regulation. Then approximately 27 seconds of smothering defense that forced Colonels guard Kevin Johnson into a turnover when a made shot would have saddled the Illini with arguably one of their worst losses.
Certainly in the Brad Underwood era. Perhaps decades.
Then Andres Feliz finished the game. Emphatically.
So instead of a disastrous upset to start the 2019-20 season, Illinois walked away with a 78-70 overtime victory against Nicholls State in front of 10,034 fans at State Farm Center that breathed a collective sigh of relief on their way out the door and into the cold Tuesday night.
The win happened in the Illini’s first season opener to go to overtime since 1998 against Wake Forest at Madison Square Garden in New York and first ever opener to need overtime at home.
“Being a veteran, the ball wasn’t going in, I had to figure out other things to do,” Frazier said. “Mentally locking in on the defensive end and getting stops. I could have easily got in my own feelings and let those shots bother me. I’ve got to be mentally locked in the full 40 minutes. I had to find different ways to help my team win.
“That was a tough win, obviously. That was a team we knew we had to go out there and fight for 30 minutes. They gave us their best. We went into overtime and had to stick together. We had to put it together and get some stops on defense to pull out the ‘W.’”
Feliz was locked in, too. The senior guard scored the first seven points of overtime and finished with a team-high 23 points, 11 rebounds and two assists.
“I think we’ve all seen that before,” Underwood said of how Feliz finished the game. “He does that. Real simple. Winners win. Winners find a way. Defensively in the overtime we held them to 1 of 6. We re-engaged. We handled our assignments and responsibilities. There’s a 7-, 8-, 9-minute stretch where we didn’t do any of that.”
Expectations for the Illinois men’s basketball built steadily in the preceding seven months since the end of last season.
National media hyped the Illini. Multiple players found themselves on award watch lists along with some of the best players in the country. They were projected in the NCAA tournament in Joe Lunardi’s latest ESPN bracketology update — at No. 10 seed — on the day before the 2019-20 season started.
Struggling against a bottom-half Southland Conference team with 10 new players in the season opener wasn’t the ideal start to that potential bounce-back season. It also didn’t mean the Illini were pushing the panic button after one result, despite Illinois leading Nicholls State 64-50 with 5:11 left in the second half before the Colonels closed regulation on a 16-2 run to force overtime.
“We got the win,” said sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, who had 21 points. “That’s all that matters. We’re not worried about, ‘Oh, we went to overtime.’ That’s a good team. They played the right way, and they’ve got shot makers. There’s a lot of talent everywhere. Nicholls State showed that.”
That’s what Underwood wants from his team. Winning matters. Even if it wasn’t pretty. He’ll be the one that frets.
“I always look for the perfect game,” Underwood said. “I know it’s never going to exist. I thought we got out-played. That’s something I challenge myself with as a coach every single day is to never let our team get out-hustled and outplayed. When we’re not mentally tuned in, that’s completely on me. (But) I’m ecstatic we won the game, and we will be better in the next one.
“I can live with missing shots. We’re not always going to make shots. Trent’s been on a burner since the first day. I can live with that. He also took three charges and made the defensive play of the night. It’s the silly turnovers and not diving on the floor that will keep me up.”