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Sophomores key in Illinois victory

For 4 minutes, Illinois wasn’t quite Illinois, playing uncharacteristically soft to a weaker opponent. But when John Groce introduced a full line change just before the under 16 media timeout, the uninspired play quickly gave way to the kind of energy expected from the Illini men’s basketball team and they went on to stomp Austin Peay, 107-66. It was the second straight game over 100 points for Illinois, as well as the second straight game with better than 55% field goal shooting.

Once again the Illini were balanced, not relying on a single player for points. Eleven of the 12 players that stepped onto the floor for Illinois scored a basket. The team leaders were Rayvonte Rice, who only took 6 shots but buried all 6 of them, and Malcolm Hill, who was nearly perfect, 6-7 from the field, both netting 16 points.

In terms of a team victory, however, the most important stat is 20 assists on 40 field goals. The major catalyst for this was Jaylon Tate, who dished out a team-high 5 assists. Tate’s vision was dynamic and earned him 23 minutes, more than senior starter Ahmad Starks. His play was also emblematic of the sophomores as a group, who showed their mettle in the blowout.

Tate, of course, quarterbacked the team through most of the game, but he only racked up 3 points in the game. Hill and Kendrick Nunn, the duo that sparked Illinois’s late-season resurgence last season, did the heavy lifting on the offensive end. Hill continued to prove why he’s been a starter, grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing out 3 assists in addition to his 16 points. He was a force to be reckoned with, even if at times he looked to still be getting comfortable playing as a forward (I counted at least 2 times he took rebounds out of teammates hands, once sending the ball out of bounds).

Likewise, Nunn showed that his knee injury is fully behind him and that Aaron Cosby (6 points, 4 assists) may not have an uncontested starting spot much longer. During Illinois’ 11-2 run after the first 4 minutes of the game, Nunn never slowed down. In one series he was knocked down on offense, streaked back on defense to get a steal, then forced a turnover on the next Austin Peay possession, and then grabbed a rebound on the possession after that. Nunn finished the game with 14 points and 3 steals in 19 minutes.

The other sophomores, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan, each had 5 points, but in different ways. Colbert was again given a vote of confidence as the first man off the bench to spell Nnanna Egwu. Once again he looked fairly comfortable, going 2-2 from the field (including a three that fired up his teammates on the bench) and pulling in 2 rebounds. Morgan didn’t see game time until there were 9 minutes left to play, but he made an immediate impact, hitting a jumper and blocking a shot in his first minute on the court.

The play of the sophomores was crucial in this being a team win, because the four of them have to put in good minutes in the rotation for this team to be successful. For example, vintage Egwu, the rebounding, blocking machine, hasn’t been seen so far this year. But with Colbert and Morgan filling in ably, it’s not been an issue. Likewise, with Hill and Nunn shooting the lights out there is less pressure on Rice to provide all the scoring and everything flows more smoothly on offense.

Some caution: These triple-digit scoring games are coming against weak opposition, not close to Big Ten quality. But Illinois just scored 100 points twice in two games, ranking as the number two team in the nation in points per game afterward, so anyone who wants to get excited has every right to do so.

Human victory cigar Mike Latulip follows a steal with a layup, sparing the rim his wrath.

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