CHAMPAIGN — Kipper Nichols walked by the Illinois bench in the second half on Saturday, looked at the coaching staff with a smile taking over his face and reminded them that he just drew his third charge of the game.
Nichols knows that charges are like currency for Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood.
In a sense, those charges were bigger for Nichols than the 14 points he scored or the nine rebounds he grabbed in Illinois' 73-55 win over East Tennessee State at the State Farm Center for its first two-game win streak since January of last season.
"It’s the difference between winning and losing," Nichols said of taking charges. "It’s a very deflating play in the game of basketball. You draw a foul on their player and it's a turnover. It does a lot for momentum."
It's been a long road for Nichols. Seconds after Nichols said in his post-game press conference that he took his first charge last year, Underwood interrupted with a quick message, "That's sad."
"Coach brought me a long way, man," Nichols replied.
Saturday was the fourth straight game Nichols has scored in double figures for the Illini (4-7), the longest streak of his college career. Sophomore guard Trent Frazier led the Illini with 25 points, five assists and three steals.
The Illini led from the get go, extending their lead to as many as 30 points in the first half, and ETSU never got closer than 15 points the rest of the way.
“I liked today," Underwood said. "I thought today was top to bottom, both ends of the court, no doubt the first half was the best we’ve played from an execution standpoint."
Illinois was without freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin, both were late to shootaround on Saturday and did not play against East Tennessee State. It was the only game in his young college career that Dosunmu didn't start.
"It’s part of my job as a coach to this great university," Underwood said. "I take it very personal to hold young guys accountable. When guys show up late, there are consequences. I flip the switch, I'm done, we move on and go on to the next."
Frazier absorbed more responsibility in their absence, and connected on six 3-pointers, while freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili added 15 points and six rebounds.
The rest came from Nichols, who has found a bit of consistency, starting with scoring 12 points in the loss at Nebraska. There have been times Nichols stayed after practice, shot free throws and talked to the coaches. Underwood said the light bulb for Nichols is on.
“There’s nothing in the game Kipper can’t do," Underwood said. "That’s what we see as coaches: A guy who can dribble, a guy who can pass, who shoot it from 3, drive it, be a very good free throw shooter and guard multiple positions. You want to maximize those guys and I keep pushing him and pushing him to be that guy."
ETSU (8-4) turned the ball over 20 times, including 14 times in the first half and its starters shot 1-of-16 from the field, with 52 of the Buccaneers' points coming off the bench.
"They really took us out of our offense in the first half," ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. "I was afraid of that coming in. You try to practice against that type of pressure, but it's hard to do. The turnovers were a major issue for us."
Forbes, whose relationship with Underwood dates back decades, wouldn't cite it as an excuse, but his team went through extreme travel circumstances to even arrive in Champaign, pulling into the hotel sans equipment at 3:30 a.m. after leaving Johnson City, Tenn. at 11 a.m.
The team flew from Johnson City to Atlanta, landed at 1:30 p.m. and was supposed to land in Bloomington at 4:30 p.m. However, heavy fog in the area prevented the team from landing. Instead, they sat longer at the Atlanta airport before landing at Midway Airport in Chicago at between 9:30 and 10 p.m. without their luggage in tow. A bus breakdown cost the team a few more hours. The Buccaneers boarded the bus at 1 a.m., and arrived at the I Hotel at 3:30 a.m. in Champaign.
Still, Forbes directed credit to the Illini, not his team's travel woes that elicited memories of junior college coaching. But what makes the defense so difficult?
"They don't play like most teams play," Forbes said. "They deny every possession, every pass and they're very physical in the passing lanes."
Next up for Illinois is a week off before playing Missouri in the annual Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. The Illini roll into town with two consecutive wins under their belt after a challenging non-conference slate, which Forbes praised.
“Its huge for us," Frazier said of the win. "The main thing for us is we were just trying to get over that hump with having a tough schedule at the beginning. I think that was good for us and the young guys to play those teams. Momentum right now, we have that and we’re looking forward to continue that."