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Illinois coach Brad Underwood is ready to reverse the trend of missing the NCAA Tournament in his first year with the Illini.

Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN — Is it possible that something from Brad Underwood’s Thanksgiving meal gave him a whopping case of irritable indigestion?

Or was it simply what his Illini basketball team served him Friday night at the State Farm Center? Side dishes like rotten defense, rancid rebounding and the occasional bit of lukewarm hustle.

Underwood was in a near-constant uproar, a fire-breathing, foot-stomping, vein-busting scream machine, shouting at nearly everything his own team did and much of what it didn’t do.

Finally in the second half, when the team he’s trying to shape started playing more to his liking, he settled down long enough for a few hugs, handshakes and pats on the back.

Thanks to the play of Michael Finke, Aaron Jordan and Te’Jon Lucas, Illinois recovered from its first halftime deficit of the season for an 86-73 victory over North Carolina Central.

Finke scored 22 points and had six rebounds. Jordan made six of seven shots including four of five 3-pointers for 16 points. But it was Lucas, the sophomore point guard, who took charge at halftime after North Carolina Central had taken a 35-34 lead.

“Te’Jon took complete control of the locker room,” Underwood said. “I didn’t need to do anything X and O-wise. I just told our coaching staff, we’ll find out who will lead and who will fight.”

Upset that rebounding, defense and hustle had all slipped a notch, Underwood knew North Carolina Central — an NCAA Tournament team last season — was good enough to keep pushing the issue.

“If we want to keep accepting getting whipped, they we’ll get whipped. At some point there has to be some pride. Te’Jon stepped up….and I was really excited to see that," Underwood said.

Underwood said his foul mood on the bench had been building based on what he’d seen in practice.

“I knew all day,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I got a feel we weren’t sharp in shoot-around today. Let’s be honest. We do that in Big Ten play and we’re losing. It doesn’t matter who we play.”

Jordan, who has made 15 of 23 3s on the season (65.2 percent), said the Illini took the floor to start the second half knowing they had work to do.

“Coach said it was one of the worst halves we played and we had to turn it around or it wasn’t going to be pretty,” Jordan said.

Finke said Lucas jump-started the second half turnaround.

“I thought Te’Jon set the tone for us defensively,” Finke said. “He really got after it. That’s what led to that run.”

It was an 11-2 run to open the second half and put the Illini back in control of the game and it was Finke who got it going by playing perhaps the best stretch of his career.

The game was tied 37-37 when Finke erupted. His 3-pointer pushed Illinois ahead for good, 40-37, and when he blocked a shot at the rim on the other end, Underwood nearly smiled.

Finke followed that with another 3-pointer that stretched the lead to 43-37. Then he grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic and not long after that he scored on a lob from Trent Frazier to give Illinois a 45-39 lead.

Underwood blamed himself for not having the team better focused. He pointed to the sub-par job by the freshmen as an example. Mark Smith, who had scored in double figures in every game, had three points on 1-of-6 shooting.

It helped that North Carolina Central’s top scorer, Raasean Davis, was in foul trouble and finished with just four points, 13 below his average. Reggie Gardner Jr. led the Eagles (2-5) with 18 points.

Next up is three straight games against teams from Power 5 conferences and despite the occasional struggles, Underwood said he’s excited.

“It’s time to take the next challenge and move and grow and see what we can do,” he said.

“I think our average margin of victory is close to 19 or 20 points. The ones coming up won’t be like that. We’re going to have to grind and fight.”


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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