CHAMPAIGN – Saturday was the day Illinois had an opportunity to show that its stellar first-half performance against Missouri one week ago was only a glimpse of what’s to come.
Saturday was the day Illinois could show that one half of excellence against Missouri could become a full game of it against Grand Canyon.
That story line never materialized. Instead, Illinois had to scratch and claw and come from five points down at halftime. Three big plays by freshmen – including a 3-pointer by Da’Monte Williams with 15.2 seconds to go, lifted Illinois to a 62-58 victory.
Despite playing a poor first half, Illini coach Brad Underwood walked off the State Farm Center floor smiling.
“There are some games you’re just really, really happy to find a W and this was one,” Underwood said. “I told our team I’m ecstatic because I’m not sure a couple of weeks ago we would have won this one.
“The process is so important to everything we do. There are nights when it’s really ugly. But (Grand Canyon) is an extremely well-coached basketball team with two fifth-year senior guards and when you don’t feel good (some Illini players are showing early flu-like symptoms) and you’re coming off an emotional game and it’s semester break and no one is around, it becomes more challenging.
“Our second-half defensive numbers were great. We won this game because of our defense and our rebounding.”
Illinois (10-5) needed every positive it could find and holding Grand Canyon to 29 percent shooting (9 of 31) in the second half was essential. So was its 44-33 rebounding edge.
After trailing 32-27 at halftime, and with only Leron Black (20 points, 11 rebounds) playing well, Illinois had to tighten up on the defensive end to mount a comeback.
Five times Illinois tied the game but not until freshman Trent Frazier and junior Michael Finke teamed up could Illinois grab the lead with 5:34 to go.
The score was tied 51-51 when Frazier drove the baseline and passed up a difficult shot in traffic. Instead, he fired the ball to the corner where Finke was unguarded.
Finke’s 3-pointer gave the Illini a 54-51 lead.
Grand Canyon (10-5) tied it again at 54-54 and it was Frazier who stepped up again. This time, nearly duplicating the 3-pointer he made at the end of the first half against Missouri, he drew 6-10 center Allesandro Lever out and nailed a 3-pointer in his face to give Illinois a 57-54 lead with 2:16 to play.
A basket by Keonta Vernon with 1:17 to go brought Grand Canyon to within one at 57-56.
Frazier missed a floater but when the ball went out of bounds, the officials awarded it to the Illini, a call upheld on video review. This time, with 15.2 seconds to go, Da'Monte Williams stepped into a 3-point shot and swished it to give Illinois a 60-56 lead.
Vernon scored with 6.7 seconds to go but Mark Alstork hit two free throws with 6.3 seconds left to end the scoring.
Black carried the Illini in the first half but was in foul trouble for much of the second half. That’s when Frazier stepped up.
“It was hard getting shots,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “They pressure you all game long and when you go 3 for 20 from the 3-point line, it’s hard to win.
“Illinois is a good team. (Underwood) has they playing hard.”
Black, who was coughing and wheezing after the game, said it’s important to find a way to win even when it’s a struggle.
“We’re getting better,” Black said. “Early in the season we might not have pulled this one out. The younger players are learning how to play and hopefully that will carry over into conference play.”
That challenge is right around the corner. Illinois heads to Minnesota where it will meet the Golden Gophers at 8 p.m., Wednesday (BTN). Illinois will not return home after the game and will head straight to Ann Arbor, Mich., where it will face Michigan at 11 a.m., Saturday.
The game against Grand Canyon was the only Saturday home game this season. And the game at Michigan is the only Big Ten road game that falls on a Saturday.