CHAMPAIGN – It took less than a half for Illini basketball fans who had gathered on the ledge one week ago to come in from the cold.
A sizzling start and a brand of basketball not seen in the State Farm Center in many years fueled Illinois’ 102-55 blowout over Southern University Friday in what was both the season-opener and Brad Underwood’s Illini coaching debut.
When Underwood stalked onto the court before the game, his first gesture was to face the Orange Krush student section and applaud enthusiastically. The revved up students stood and returned the gesture.
The Orange Krush had plenty of reasons to stand and holler.
Illinois hit Southern with a wave of pressure defense and forced seven turnovers in the first eight minutes, flying to a 25-7 lead. Offensively, there was quick-twitch ball and player movement that looked like a foreign language after years of going in much slower motion. And this Illini team attacks the basket, something previous teams talked about but rarely did.
Early-on it was Michael Finke and Leron Black making amends for their sub-par performance one week ago in an exhibition loss at Eastern Illinois. That performance was so disconcerting that fans were taking virtual jumps from the ledge of despair on social media.
“This season is already over,” one fan with a particularly dim view Tweeted at the time.
After a demanding week of practice, Illinois played like a team that had learned a lesson.
Finke played 20 minutes and had zero rebounds against Eastern. He had three rebounds Friday before the first media timeout at the 16:00 mark in the first half and finished the game with 12 points and six boards. He scored Illinois’ first basket of the game by ripping down Mark Alstork’s missed shot and dunking the rebound.
Alstork, the team’s only senior, was a mess against Eastern. But he bounced back with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Aaron Jordan came off the bench to establish a new career high with 17 points.
Leron Black scored 14 points and added six rebounds and four assists.
Illinois’ aggression was rewarded at the free throw line. Underwood has said he would like his team to shoot 30 to 35 free throws a game. Those are big numbers. Yet against Southern the Illini knocked down 34 of 37.
All this on a night when the Illini never could find the range from 3-point distance. The team hit just 4 of 21.
One week after chewing his team out for its lack of hustle and emotion, Underwood was thrilled.
“Last Friday was a little bit humbling,” Underwood said. “I thought we did a tremendous job of preparing to win this week, so that’s what I’m really proud of.
“Te’Jon Lucas was tremendous. He set the tone the entire week. His leadership was phenomenal. His effort was tremendous. And when he picked up a couple fouls early, Trent Frazier came in and his ball pressure was important in keeping them out of what they wanted to run.”
Alstork, who averaged 19 points a game last year at Wright State, was 9 of 10 from the free throw line as he attacked the paint.
“I think we just brought energy at both ends of the court,” Alstork said. “Once Eastern was over, we just put that behind us. We dominated practice and it showed today.
“It was fun, real fun. The crowd was great. I’ve never seen that many people (attendance: 14,647) since I’ve played college basketball so it was a humbling experience for me.”
Jared Sam, a 6-10 senior, led Southern with 21 points.
Illinois has a quick turnaround. It plays host to Tennessee-Martin at 5 p.m., Sunday, a game that will be televised on ESPNU.