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LINCOLN, Neb. — Omar Payne went eight consecutive games without scoring this season.

From the Illini’s 94-85 home win against UT Rio Grande Valley on Nov. 26 through Illinois’ 76-53 win at Minnesota on Jan. 4, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward delivered just as many points to Brad Underwood’s team as this writer did.

Payne played just double-digit minutes in one of those games, a 10-minute outing During an 86-51 win against Rutgers on Dec. 3 at State Farm Center, where he didn’t score but did haul in a season-high seven rebounds during his first Big Ten game.

Opportunities have been few and far between for the Florida transfer in his first season playing at Illinois after Kofi Cockburn’s return from his three-games suspension to start the season. The bulk of the minutes are going to go to Cockburn, the preseason All-American who is still the only player in the country in the top 10 in scoring (22.0 points) and rebounding (12.5).

And rightly so.

Payne’s role didn’t grow all that much Tuesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena at least in terms of time on the court.

The Florida transfer did hit double-digit minutes for just the fifth time all season, but he still played just 10.

It was when those minutes happened and what Payne did with them, though, that was a difference-maker during Illinois’ 81-71 win at Nebraska. Four points, two rebounds and a blocked shot — just part of his productive night — during the final 3:16 helped seal the victory. It was Payne, not Cockburn, who helped close out the fifth straight win for the 25th-ranked Illini.

“To step up and impact the game like he did was huge in a night where I kept the best player in the country on the bench the last four minutes,” Underwood said.

Cockburn picked up his fourth foul with 3:57 to play and was gassed after battling Nebraska’s Derrick Walker all night.

“(Payne) was that good,” Underwood continued. “I think he went a seven-or eight-game stretch maybe where he didn’t score. But he’s kept grinding in practice.”

The practice gym, whether at Ubben Basketball Complex or State Farm Center, is where Payne’s contributions have mostly been felt. While he’s produced defensively in limited playing time in games — Underwood has been effusive about how he’s graded out — it was the practice gym where he’s continued to hone his skills.

Payne hadn’t flashed his all-around game until Tuesday night against the Cornhuskers. Eight points, five rebounds and four blocked shots off the bench helped keep Illinois (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) afloat as Nebraska (6-11, 0-6) threatened to pull an upset against the Big Ten leader.

“That’s probably the best I’ve felt,” Payne said. “I felt like that was just me turning myself up. I just had to have confidence in myself. … Really just keeping my mind straight, keeping my mental straight, and when coach calls my number, just be ready all the time.”

All the practice time at Ubben or State Farm Center, with plenty of extra film study, is Payne’s priority. Assistant coach Geoff Alexander has helped Payne with those skills, and Underwood joked he almost got clocked by a celebratory fist pump from Alexander as Payne thrived against the Cornhuskers.

“Geoff is my guy,” Payne said. “Every time he talks to me, he just hypes me up. He keeps me going and keeps my head straight. I work with him every day, watch film and talk with him. He knows what I’ve got to do.”

What Payne showed Tuesday night in Lincoln was what his teammates have seen since he arrived from Florida this summer. That he’s spent those preceding months locked in post-play combat with Cockburn has only sparked more growth. Simply put, Payne competes.

“Having one of the best bigs in the country, he has to come in every day in practice and fight,” Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said. “Obviously, it’s tough on him, but he comes in with that energy that he’s going to compete and fight. It shows. It showed (Tuesday) with him stepping in for Kofi with some big, big-time minutes catching lobs around the rim, knocking down some huge free throws and blocking shots. That was huge for us. The minutes he played, he really helped us win.”

Payne’s production was part of a three-pronged bench attack. Payne, sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins and freshman guard Luke Goode didn’t provide the scoring punch Underwood likes off the bench, but all three played a key role in the win. Hawkins finished with four points and eight rebounds, including a string of offensive rebounds that led to an eventually easy putback down the stretch, and Goode had two rebounds, one block and several hustle plays.

“You know me,” Underwood said. “That’s something I always strive for is finding those bonus pieces off that bench that add, that don’t subtract. Omar was a plus-17 (Tuesday). That’s huge. I look at plus/minus more than I do points or rebounds. Luke gave us great minutes. Coleman plus-14. That’s where you win the game. That’s where you win the game with those guys. They were huge in their contributions.”

{p class=”card-about”}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).

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).

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