CHAMPAIGN — Nicholls State didn't make it easy on Illinois. In fact, the Colonels almost put a sour start to Illinois' season of NCAA Tournament aspirations.
The Illini needed overtime to stave off Nicholls on the way to a 78-70 season-opening win in overtime on Tuesday at the State Farm Center.
There didn't seem to be a hint of disappointment from the Illini players after narrowly escaping with a win, because they escaped with just that: A win.
"Why would we be disappointed," Dosunmu asked. "We got the win."
That's exactly how Illinois coach Brad Underwood wanted his team to digest the game. The rest falls on him as a head coach.
“I’m ecstatic we won the game, don’t get me wrong," Underwood said. "I always look for the perfect game, I know it's never going to exist. I thought we got outplayed tonight and that is something that I challenge myself as a coach every single day is to not like our team get out-hustled or out-played. When we're not mentally tuned in, that's completely on me. I'm ecstatic we won the game and we will be better in the next one, I promise you."
Senior guard Andres Feliz scored the first seven points of overtime and sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu effectively sealed the game with an and-1 layup with 1 minute, 33 seconds left in overtime for a six-point lead.
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Illinois needed everything to ward off a ferocious late rally from the Colonels that included a 14-0 run and a two-point lead with less than 30 seconds left. Trent Frazier's two free throws tied the game 66-all with 29.8 seconds left before Frazier's tenacious defense forced Nicholls State guard Kevin Johnson into a travel with two seconds remaining. A last-second, three-quarter court heave by Alan Griffin fell short to force overtime.
Feliz led the Illini with 23 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a steal. Dosunmu scored 21 points to go with seven rebounds, two assists and two steals. In his official college debut, Cockburn had 10 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.
Frazier is one of the team's top scorers, but was 0-for-9 from the field and 0-for-6 from 3-point land. But when he needed to step up to the free-throw line, after missing all of his shots, he made both of his free throws and made a key defensive stop at the other end. He had a steal, took three charges and ran the scout to perfection on Nicholls' final possession of the game.
“Being a veteran, the ball wasn't going in and I had to figure out other things to do like helping out on rebounding and mentally locking in on the defensive end and getting stops and helping my team win," Frazier said. "I could have easily got into my own feelings and let those shots bother me, but I didn’t. I thought I did a pretty good job on the defensive end just locking in and helping my team win.
Still, Nicholls State (0-1) hung around, in part because it forced 23 Illinois turnovers, canned timely 3-pointers and took advantage of an off-shooting night from 3-point land (26 percent).
Illinois led by as many as 20 points in the second half before the Colonels' big run that was sparked by Dexter McClanahan's 25 points, 20 of which came in the second half.
The Illini play at Grand Canyon on Friday before playing No. 21 Arizona on Sunday to complete a two-game Arizona swing.