CHAMPAIGN – With the level of competition about to jump a couple notches, Illinois won’t have many more games like the one it breezed through Wednesday night.
Playing without two of its top interior players – Leron Black (elbow) and Kipper Nichols (foot) – Illinois used a small lineup, crisp ball movement and a scrambling defense to smother Longwood 92-45 at the State Farm Center.
One game after committing a school-record tying 36 personal fouls, Illinois was whistled for 13.
Illinois (8-4) owned almost every statistical advantage including a 52-23 rebounding edge. That included 27 offensive rebounds.
With Black and Nichols unavailable, coach Brad Underwood moved Aaron Jordan into the starting lineup and played the 6-5 junior at power forward. He leaned on freshmen and seldom used big men Gregory Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel for more minutes and even called on walkon guard Drew Cayce for some first-half help.
But in the end, it was a balanced assault from Jordan (career-high 22 points, 8 rebounds), Trent Frazier (career-high 20 points,4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 0 turnovers), Michael Finke (19 points, 7 rebounds) and Mark Alstork (10 points, 7 rebounds).
“We were two guys down so we challenged our team with a couple of things,” Underwood said. “Ball movement…we didn’t want the ball to stick. We wanted to get the ball to the third side and that includes a ball reversal.
“We did a great job of finding Michael early and that was huge. It got us going and gave us some freedom.
“The other thing, playing without our top two rebounders, I was curious about the rebounding. I really challenged our perimeter players to rebound. Te’Jon Lucas had seven. That’s a tremendous number. Aaron got seven offensive rebounds. Da’Monte (Williams) got five. That’s a crazy number (27) to see that many offensive rebounds.”
Illinois started a bit slow and Underwood felt it was a case of his team being too passive while carrying out his order to reduce personal fouls.
When Longwood’s B.K. Ashe hit a 3-pointer with 12:25 left in the first half, the Lancers had a 12-10 lead. At the time Illinois had missed all seven of its 3-point shots.
That would change in a hurry.
Finke, Frazier and Jordan hit back-to-back-to-back 3s to open a 19-12 lead and Illinois went on a 40-12 run to close out the first half.
Finke, who made 8 of 10 shots, said it was a challenge to play with such a small lineup and to play without the rebounding of Black and Nichols.
“It’s definitely different than we’re used to,” he said. “A lot of people stepped up. We spaced the floor and shots were falling and we got a lot of assists. People were finding each other.”
Finke and Jordan said the growth of freshman point guard Trent Frazier is making a difference.
“His versatility is great,” Finke said. “He can guard and score at the (point guard) spot and when you can shoot 3s like that, he brings a lot to the table.”
“You can definitely see his confidence growing game by game,” Jordan said. “It’s amazing.”
Longwood’s Isaiah Walton, who came in averaging nearly 19 points a game, scored just 4. Ashe, who was averaging nearly 15, scored 8 but also had 8 turnovers.
The Illini had 2018 big man recruit Flo Thamba, a 6-9, 225-pounder from Grundy, Va., in the house on a recruiting visit. Thamba has Illinois in his final four along with Virginia Tech, Baylor and Nebraska.
The Orange Krush student section serenaded him during the game.