EVANSTON — It felt as if an extra wave of energy floated around the Illinois basketball team on Sunday with each basket from graduate transfer big man Adonis De La Rosa.
That energy inside Welsh-Ryan Arena in Illinois' 68-66 loss to Northwestern was stirred, in part, because of De La Rosa's journey.
He turned in his best performance of his Illinois career with 12 points and three rebounds off the bench, spelling freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who got into early foul trouble and played just 15 minutes, 58 seconds.
"Just a regular day, man, for me," De La Rosa said. "Again, I've been doing this for quite some time. Being a senior and understanding that Giorgi wasn't having his best night and knowing that I had to pick up the slack ... I came out, the guys looked for me and gave me some looks."
Consider just eight days ago, De La Rosa sat out against Florida Atlantic with what was described as an "aggravated knee." He's been working his way back after tearing his ACL in March while he played at Kent State. He made his Illinois debut on Nov. 13 against Georgetown, but hadn't put a game together like he did on Sunday.
"It was great," Illinois freshman Ayo Dosunmu said. "I was excited for him. I showed so much energy and passion for him because I know where he came from. I know him having an injury and playing in the best league, staying strong, keep competing and keeping his head up.
"I was so proud of him when he was getting his baskets that I kept feeding him. At the end of the day, I know where he came from. I know how it feels to come from injury and try to come out and play well."
De La Rosa played in Thursday's loss to Indiana, scoring two points and nabbing three rebounds in 10 minutes off the bench. De La Rosa credits the stretch of improved play to a better routine, consistency, more reps and workouts, but it's been what the Illini have needed.
"He's gotten in better shape," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. "I think a little bit of it is matchups — guys who he's able to be successful guarding — his health, and his conditioning, all of it. To be honest with you, I'd like to see more minutes from him."
Underwood calls De La Rosa the "old man" of the locker room. After all, the Kent State grad transfer has been everywhere. He started at St. John's, but didn't play and went the junior college route before landing at Kent State. That's just his basketball experience. He grew up in The Bronx, added a lot of weight and dropped it and is an engaged father.
His words carry merit.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of respect for him, knowing that when he says something, he's lived it," Underwood said. "He's been on the road in tough environments. He's had a lot of battles and injuries and different things. I think there's a lot of respect for him. That's from me as well. He's a kid who just keeps working and puts his head down and keeps plowing forward."
De La Rosa has been on any number of teams that have followed any number of different paths. He's seen this before. Eventually, he said, the close losses will become wins and the downtrodden locker room will flip to elation.
"Just keep pushing," he tells the team. "I've been on teams that have been like this and have pulled it out during the second half of the season. Just keep improving and keep growing. They're still young. Keep listening."
As far as his play, De La Rosa is confident in what he's doing, but he knows Bezhanishvili brings the likelihood of the Illini attaining the best possible result.
"Definitely I feel like I'm back now," De La Rosa said. "It's a process as well. If we have a dude like Giorgi shooting 72 percent, it's a no-brainer. The best thing I can do is cheer him on like a senior leader. If he's having a bad day, just come in and pick up the slack."