CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu is home.
He came to Champaign as a heralded five-star guard from Chicago Morgan Park and filled the stat sheet in his Illinois debut on the way to a convincing 99-60 Illini win over Evansville in Thursday’s season opener at the State Farm Center.
A steal to set up a transition basket? Dosunmu was there. A crafty layup through the lane leading to a finger roll? Dosunmu had that, too. No-look passes in transition? Check.
He finished with 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. He was one of five players to score in double figures for an Illinois (1-0) team that was fueled by defense, forcing 26 Evansville (0-1) turnovers.
In his post-game press conference Dosunmu talked about growing up and watching players such as John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Stephen Curry — taking little bits of basketball from each of them.
For months Dosunmu had been thinking about the opportunity to showcase those skills at the State Farm Center.
“The emotions were incredible, playing for my home state and finally getting out there," Dosunmu said. "Competing and having a jersey on for real — this game really counted. It was tremendous. I just wanted to come out and play hard."
Dosunmu gave head coach Brad Underwood more than enough to like in his Illini debut. Perhaps nothing stood out to Underwood as much as Dosunmu's six rebounds.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days talking about rebounding the basketball," Underwood said. "He’s a guy who when we play these three guards (Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz) together is going to have to give us some rebounding. It's a little unusual for him. It's something new, especially on the offensive end to go rebound the basketball. I think that shows how cerebral he is and how willing a participant he is in winning.
“In the open court, Ayo’s a ton. He's got a variety of moves to go with his speed. He's got size, he hits floaters, he hit threes tonight. As well as he played offensively, I thought he set the tone early defensively on (Evansville guard) K.J. Wright. A pretty good first night."
Dosunmu slid perfectly into Underwood's system. Underwood gave the heralded freshman a blank canvas and let him paint. As far as first collegiate games go, it was a work of art.
"Coach Underwood never made me doubt my abilities," Dosunmu said. "He told me to just play how I know how to play. As the game got going, I won't lie, at the beginning of the game I was nervous playing for the first time in front of everybody, but it was fun."
Senior Aaron Jordan led all scorers with 19 points, including knocking down five of Illinois' 12 3-pointers. Feliz had 16 points, Kipper Nichols had 13 points and Frazier had 10 points — all in the first half — and seven assists.
It was Jordan's last first game in an Illinois jersey after four sometimes tumultuous years as an Illini before finding his groove under Underwood.
"Just being out there with those guys, it means everything to me," Jordan said. "I love those guys. I love this team."
Jordan learned a lot about his team in the sense that the Illini can play fast, running up and down the court and scoring in bunches. When the Illini got a rebound, 40 of them in total, they were off and running. In fact, Jordan hasn't seen a pace that matched what the Illini showed.
Dosunmu learned something more.
“I learned if I want an assist, drive and kick it to (Jordan)," Dosunmu said.
The Illini went on three separate first-half runs where they scored in double figures while Evansville was held scoreless. It started with a 10-0 run that took two minutes, 12 seconds, followed by a 13-0 run during which Aaron Jordan scored eight straight points before a 12-0 run all but ended the game before halftime.
Illinois led 53-22 at halftime and extended the lead to up to 40 points in the second half.
After battling foul trouble in last week's exhibition win against Illinois Wesleyan, freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili avoided foul trouble on Thursday. He picked up his first foul in the second half, which was immediately followed by a technical foul.
But Bezhanishvili was an anchor on the glass, hauling in 10 rebounds to go along with his seven points, a block and a thunderous alley-oop from Nichols in the first half.
“The last three practices coach has really pushed me hard," Bezhanishvili said of his rebounding. "... It was in my mind going into the game. The first thing I have to do is rebound. I was aggressive on the glass and it just happened."
Dosunmu set the tone on Oct. 19, 2017, when he announced his commitment at a Jordan Brand store in Chicago, coming out from the back in a white Illinois polo.
On Thursday, he was announced in the starting lineups fourth, just ahead of Frazier.
It was home.
"The one thing that Ayo has is extreme pride, and not just in himself and his family and his city and his state, but this university," Underwood said. "That becomes very evident when you talk to him and he chose to come to this university because he wanted to play here."