Veteran Illini key road win | Sports


LINCOLN, Neb. — One does not simply walk into Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Not even if Nebraska was 0-fer in the Big Ten heading into Tuesday night’s game. Even if the Cornhuskers’ only win in the last two months came against a Kennesaw State team that’s beaten only a single Division I opponent all season.

There’s just something about the Cornhuskers at home. Particularly when Illinois has made the trip out west.

So a close game Tuesday night shouldn’t have been a surprise. Nebraska made sure of that with an early three-point barrage, a rally to reclaim the lead at the end of the first half and a back-and-forth final 20 minutes.

The last run, though, belonged to Illinois. The No. 25 Illini made four of their last five shots and stayed unbeaten in Big Ten play with an 81-71 victory in front of an announced Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd of 14,069 that started heading to the exits in the final minutes with another Nebraska loss secured.

“Really, really good team win,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “This is a good Nebraska team. This is a game when the schedule came out I had been concerned with for a long time. They did exactly what I feared they were going to do. They were really struggling shooting the basketball, and they made their first four before the first media timeout.”

Illinois (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) had the answer. The Illini locked in defensively, allowing just two more made three-pointers in the next 36 minutes and then leaned on its veterans to make sure they left Lincoln with a road win.

Trent Frazier came within a single point of his career-high with a 29-point effort to go with five assists and four steals. Da’Monte Williams overcame an otherwise tough night to hit a key late three-pointer. And Jacob Grandison filled the gaps, scoring 12 points to go with four assists and three rebounds.

“Just being in these situations a bunch of times,” Frazier said was key for the Illinois veterans. “Being fifth years with experience, we’re used to these moments. We never get sped up. We know how to finish the game. We’ve got a bunch of veteran guys out there knowing we’ve been in these moments and situations before. We did an unbelievable job getting some stops late in that last (four-minute period).”

Those veterans, which include junior center Kofi Cockburn, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds, serve an important role for the Illinois program as a whole. They’re the ones setting the example. An example newcomers like Omar Payne and the Illini’s trio of freshmen have followed.

“They bring that same energy every day,” said Payne, who finished with eight points, five rebounds and four blocks against Nebraska. “They really take pride in defense. This is something we take pride in. I’ve learned that’s what I’ve got to do.”

It’s why Underwood has stressed getting old and staying old. Those are the programs that win. Illinois, after two rough seasons as one of the youngest, least experienced teams in the country early in Underwood’s tenure in Champaign, have turned the veteran corner.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Underwood said. “I’ve been blessed in my career to win some games. Usually, it’s those guys that do it. (Nebraska’s) got a special freshman — Bryce (McGowens) is special — but for the most part you don’t win big games with freshmen. You win with veterans who don’t panic and play in the moment. We’ve got a couple of those, and they continue to do that for us.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).





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