Smile Politely

Hill leads Illini to the top

Illinois stole a win from Penn State on Saturday. There’s no better way to say it.

The Illini shot less than 40%, turned the ball over 13 times, were outrebounded 32-26, had just two players score in double digits, and missed 5 free throws in the first half. In spite of all that, they managed to hold off the Nitany Lions 60-58 with a late flurry.

Penn State is not a good team, but they were good enough to win against Illinois (14-8, 4-5). Malcolm Hill was just a little bit better. When his team needed him most the sophomore rose to the occasion, scoring 27 in 37 minutes of play, carrying his team to victory.

“Malcolm was a monster,” was how head coach John Groce summed up Hill’s play after the game.

The victory, very literally, was the result of Hill’s strong play. After being consistently good throughout, he turned it up a level in the final minute. With Illinois down two, it was Hill who found Nnanna Egwu under the hoop with a nice pass, setting up a beautiful baby hook shot to tie the game. Then, after a PSU turnover, Illinois gave Hill the ball and its trust and watched him dribble around a double team and go strong to the hoop, finishing the game-winning layup with 4.4 seconds remaining.

“That was a rugged, physical play,” Groce added.

Hill’s sophomore brethren also elevated their game on Saturday. Hill, Jaylon Tate, and Kendrick Nunn were the team’s leaders in minutes, and with them on the floor Illinois really looked like a better team. It was Tate who drew the charge that led to the game-winning shot. He also dished out 5 assists and looked every bit the leader of the team. Nunn, however, had an uncharacteristically bad shooting performance (2-14), but managed to make big contributions elsewhere. He was 5 for 6 on free throws, had 4 assists, and stole the ball 5 times.

Now is a better time than ever for the sophomores to pick up the slack, as Illinois’s two injured stars (Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice) have had their return to the lineup indefinitely extended due to team rules infractions. Groce said the suspension hasn’t affected the rest of the team much, as they’ve retained positive attitudes, but the added experience has made the sophomores even better.

“These guys are getting better through experience, especially from last year, going through success and adversity, They’re getting more confident out there, but it’s nothing more than getting experience,” Groce commented.

As Illinois’s NCAA Tournament chances linger on life support, having the sophomores propel the team to victories is as important as ever. Most analysts predict Illinois will have to win out at home and pick up another good win on the road in order to be considered by the selection committee. Without Rice and Cosby, that means everyone playing at their best.

Besides the starting sophomore trio, Illinois’s other sophomores also put in a good shift against PSU. Maverick Morgan looked like he could hang in the Big Ten during his 17 minutes, which is an improvement for him, to be sure. Likewise, Austin Colbert’s 9 minutes were productive and energetic, and his putback on a missed Tate layup was a critical basket for Illinois.

Even though Illinois stole this one from Penn State, it’s the kind of thing that happens for good teams. And after this win Illinois still looks, deep down, even without a full roster, like the good team they were predicted to be. If they can keep it up, maybe the Tourney isn’t such a pipe dream. At the very least, watching the sophomores take ownership of this team makes the 2015-16 season an exciting prospect.

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