CHAMPAIGN – It doesn’t take much to get Doug Altenberger talking about Austin Peay.
One of the most infamous games in Illini basketball history hangs in his memory like the scars from a long ago car wreck.
In the final game of Altenberger’s terrific career, Austin Peay upset the Illini by a single point in an opening round NCAA Tournament game in March of 1987. When he speaks of it he cringes, cusses and finally laughs, because he’s learned that’s all he can do.
Wednesday night at the State Farm Center, with Altenberger sitting courtside as a member of the Illini radio crew, it was nearly like making him live it all over again.
Flirting with disaster all night, Illinois finally brushed aside cold shooting and 25 turnovers to pull out a 64-57 victory that ended a three-game losing streak.
After trailing 50-46 with 5:48 to go, Illinois (7-3) used a 9-0 run to take the lead for good. Six of those points came at the free throw line and the other three came on a 3-point basket by Da’Monte Wiliams, whose basket with 4:52 to go rattled around before falling through.
Williams got his first career start Wednesday, replacing freshman Mark Smith in the lineup.
Illinois still led by just three points at 59-56 when Austin Peay was called for a shot clock violation with 45.8 seconds to go.
Te’Jon Lucas was fouled driving into the lane and hit a pair of free throws to increase the Illini lead to 61-56 with 19.6 seconds and Lucas added a free throw and a driving basket to complete the victory.
Michael Finke scored 17 points and had eight rebounds and Leron Black added 16 points. But those two combined for nine of the Illini turnovers and Lucas added five more.
Austin Peay plays a similar style to the one employed by Illini coach Brad Underwood and he said that contributed to the turnovers and sloppy play.
“That was like an old slug fest in the sand box,” Underwood said. “Every play (Austin Peay coach Matt Figger) called, I know. Every play I called, he knows. Sometimes it gets ugly when you know everyone’s moves.
“Give them a lot of credit. It was us losing our poise and patience and not handling it, starting on the first possession of the game when (Lucas) dribbled it off his foot with a little ball pressure.”
Austin Peay (4-5) played aggressive, physical and fearless while jumping into passing lanes and earning extra possessions. But Austin Peay had many of the same problems Illinois did.
Austin Peay turned it over 24 times and – matching the Illini shot for shot – was 2 for 13 from 3.
“Our locker room was like a morgue,” he said. “I’m not used to that. I’m used to guys bouncing off the walls, ripping doors off, antsy to play. I try to do that every day with consistency and passion. I expect that with our team.
“I got on my son,” he said, referring to Tyler Underwood, who is sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules. “He’s been around. I don’t care if he’s playing or not. He can help.”
Austin Peay was led by Averyl Ugba, who scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Despite the ugly nature of the game, Underwood was happy to have won.
“It’s really, really good to fight through a game like tonight,” Underwood said. “You can lose very easily in college basketball and they took the fight to us. I’m glad we made free throws.”
The Illini made 20 of 28 free throws and now head to Las Vegas where they will play UNLV at 11 p.m., Saturday.