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Watch now: Austin Hutcherson shines in debut as No. 11 Illinois rolls in season-opening exhibition

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St. Francis IL Illinois Basketball

Illinois' Austin Hutcherson, center, steals the ball from St. Francis guard Lewis McGlasson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Champaign, Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN — Ahead of No. 11 Illinois' season-opening exhibition against NAIA St. Francis (Illinois) on Saturday, Illini coach Brad Underwood said if any of his players would be rusty, it'd be Austin Hutcherson. The 6-foot-6 graduate guard is entering his third season with the program, but he had never appeared in a game.

He transferred from Division III Wesleyan (Connecticut), sat out the 2019-20 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules and then missed all of last season with a stress fracture in his back.

Finally eligible and healthy, Hutcherson hardly looked rusty Saturday, sparking Illinois to a convincing 101-34 victory at State Farm Center. He tied for the game-high with 14 points off the bench and made his first five shots.

"I'm really proud of Hutch," Underwood said. "Hutch was a guy that we've all seen in practice have great moments and then had to persevere. He had to go through what was a really tough and frustrating year last season and would've helped us, would've been a big part of that team. ...

"He had the flu earlier in the week and was out, and I used the term 'kick the rust off' and he did that pretty well."

In addition to Hutcherson, the Illini's usual headliners showed off their talent, too. To no one's surprise, one of the most dazzling plays was made by reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Andre Curbelo. With just over eight minutes left in the first half, the crafty sophomore guard came up with a steal and whipped a wrap-around bounce pass from mid-court that hit Hutcherson in stride for an easy layup to put their team ahead 28-10.

"No one can do what he does. You can't coach it. You can't practice it," teammate Trent Frazier said of Curbelo's vision. "It's just a gift that he's had since I've been playing with him. He's a special player."

Curbelo finished the game with 11 points, five assists and three rebounds in 20 minutes, but he also had five turnovers.

"Belo gets a little loose sometimes, and we gotta tighten that up," Underwood said. "But he's gonna be the head of the snake for many nights and a darn good one."

Star center Kofi Cockburn, who was a consensus Second Team All-American last season, picked up where he left off, tying Hutcherson with a game-high 14 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes.

Cockburn, Curbelo, Frazier, Da'Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison were Illinois' starting five.

Sr. Francis was never able to find an offensive rhythm due to the Illini's stifling defense, which was spearheaded by Frazier. The fifth-year senior was selected to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team last season and showed that he has every intention of earning that honor again with a game-high six steals.

"I kept telling (assistant coach Chester Frazier), 'I thought I lost it a little bit.' You know I'm old now, so every time I step out there on the floor, it's like I'm 30," Frazier said, laughing. "But apparently I still have it, and obviously I challenge myself every day."

Transfer guard Alfonso Plummer (Utah) and forward Omar Payne (Florida) also made their Illinois debut. The newcomers had four points apiece, and Payne brought the home crowd to its feet with a rim-rattling, two-handed jam in the second half.

Freshmen guards Luke Goode, Brandin Podziemski and RJ Melendez also got their feet wet for the first time with two, three and nine points, respectively.

Due to COVID-19, Saturday marked the first time in 594 days since the Illini played a home game in front of fans. Underwood said it was a vital experience for all of his new players, as well as a couple returners, like Coleman Hawkins.

The sophomore forward had 13 points and drained two 3-pointers.

He'll look to build on his strong outing when Illinois hosts Division II Indiana Pennsylvania in another exhibition game Oct. 29.

"Compared to last year, too, I think it's even more motivation to go out there," Hawkins said. "Last year, you go in an empty gym and you know you got a game and you're excited for that, but there's not that extra crowd, that extra push that you have knowing you have fans there cheering you on. It gives you extra motivation, so it made me feel good (Saturday).

Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid


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