Andre Curbelo Alfonso Plummer
Listen to this article

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Brad Underwood left T-Mobile Center on Monday night in an unfamiliar headspace. What he saw from his team during the first game of the Hall of Fame Classic struck a discordant tone. Maybe even beyond that.

“I didn’t like that team,” Underwood said. “That was something so rare for me to see in my time here. We just didn’t fight.”

Underwood wrapped up his media obligations after Illinois’ 71-51 loss to Cincinnati knowing that the Illini’s return trip to T-Mobile Center on Tuesday night would reveal their character. Show just how they could handle such a staggering disappointment and then play again basically 24 hours later.

Underwood and the Illini departed T-Mobile Center on Tuesday in a different place. A 72-64 victory against Kansas State made a difference. Not just for the win, but for how they pulled it off given some adversity to overcome between another slew of turnovers and injuries to two of their top three players in Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo.

“Coach told us a good message, and that touched me a little bit,” Illinois guard Alfonso Plummer said. “He said life hits you. The weak are going to back down and are going to quit. The strong are going to respond and learn from their mistakes and keep fighting.

“That’s why they call us the Fighting Illini. We’re always going to fight. It doesn’t matter if we lose or we win. We’re always going to be in the fight. Every game is going to be a war, and we're going to be ready for that. We responded really well.”

Underwood noticed a difference in his team during Tuesday morning’s shootaround. The Illini were attentive, had better energy and the leadership that was lacking Monday night against Cincinnati was better 24 hours later. The fight Illinois was lacking Monday showed up Tuesday.

“The locker room is filled with a bunch of guys who things haven’t gone right for,” Underwood said. “It’s been really hard. It’s really been filled with turmoil from a standpoint of guys out. Unsettling. It just hasn’t gone smooth. There's been bumps in the road, but that locker room is filled with a bunch of guys who really want to be really good. They want to really do the right things. They want to play the right way.”

Plummer broke through his early season struggles and knocked down 7 of 9 three-pointers to account for all 21 of his points. That still made him a secondary scorer behind Kofi Cockburn’s 23-point, 13-rebound double-double. Cockburn set the tone early. Plummer was the reinforcement off the bench and said the team’s energy was the difference.

“I feel like it doesn’t matter if we were down or up,” Plummer said. “The bench was energetic. The coaches were energetic. The fans. I feel like that energy gives a message to the players out there. It kept us motivated to play hard every possession and helped us to win the game.”

Now, Illinois just needs to get healthy. Freshman guard Luke Goode already sat out both Hall of Classic games with back spasms, and then was joined on the injured list by Frazier, who could put no weight on his injured left leg, and Curbelo, who is dealing with some post-concussion symptoms.

“You’re talking about one of the elite backcourts in the Big Ten that wasn’t a part of that (Tuesday) in crunch time,” Underwood said. “We need to be healthy.”

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Trending Videos