By Michael Farmer, Illini Store Correspondent
CHAMPAIGN, ILL -- After starting off 0-3 in Big Ten play, the Illinois men's basketball team seems to have found its groove again.
Terrence Shannon Jr and Coleman Hawkins led the unranked Illini to a 10-point win over the 14th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday. Shannon and Hawkins showed up once again last night in a 26-point win for the Illini over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Illini Are Back in the NCAA Picture
Less than a week ago, many were deeming the season somewhat of a lost cause. Now, the Illini are right back in the NCAA Tournament picture.
Illinois was favored by just 3.5 points going into last night’s matchup in Lincoln. The Illini had won 5 in a row vs the Huskers, but some of the last matchups had been surprisingly close.
Ayo Dosunmu had to carry the 2020-21 squad to an overtime victory in Lincoln, while Omar Payne and Trent Frazier willed the 2021-22 squad to a hard-fought victory in Lincoln exactly 365 days ago.
How the Illini Beat Nebraska
Nebraska has struggled mightily in recent years, but no Big Ten game is ever a free win. So, it wasn’t surprising when almost nine minutes into the game the Illini only had 10 points.
Terrence Shannon Jr then scored the next six points for the Illini, finishing with 17 in the first half. Illinois led Nebraska 34-23 at halftime.
The second half began with a quick 6-0 Nebraska run, but Illinois didn’t back down. Coleman Hawkins scored seven points in the next two and a half minutes, extending the lead to 12.
Two Matthew Mayer threes and an RJ Melendez jumper helped grow the lead to 18 points with 13 minutes left in the game.
Nebraska’s Wilhelm Breidenbach scored 11 points in the following five minutes to give the Huskers some life, but once again, the Fighting Illini refused to back down. Two Nebraska free throws cut the lead to just 10 with six minutes to play, but it was all Illini from that point on.
A dominant 17-1 run by Illinois to close the game ended any chance of a Nebraska upset victory.
The Illini Offense Is Looking Great
To say the Illinois offense has looked better in the last two games would be a massive understatement.
Jayden Epps has stepped up, averaging 13.0 PPG in his last two outings. Matthew Mayer has scored 10 points in both wins. Coleman Hawkins is showing major potential, putting up 16.0 PPG in the two wins. Terrence Shannon Jr is dominating, averaging 24.5 PPG in his last two games.
The entire team has responded tremendously to the adversity that they’ve faced.
The resilient Illinois Fighting Illini have a huge home game vs the Michigan State Spartans on Friday.
A win would put them at .500 in the Big Ten, which would be a massive accomplishment after starting 0-3.
We’ll see you then!