Black, Egwu Lead Illinois Basketball Past Purdue’s Bigs

Photo: Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois basketball team faced questions entering its game against the Purdue on Wednesday night. Tall questions. With two 7-foot players A.J. Hammons and Isaac Hass, the Boilermaker centers presented a challenge to a depleted Illinois team.

Freshman Leron Black and senior Nnanna Egwu were up to the challenge, however, and led the Illini to a 66-57 win over the Boilermakers.

“It was fun,” Black told reporters after the game. “I like going against players bigger than me. It’s a challenge, and I like challenges.”

Black responded to the challenge of making his first career start in place of Aaron Cosby. The team announced before the game that Cosby had suffered an eye injury in the Indiana game and that the transfer guard would miss one-two weeks. The start didn’t faze Black, as he responded with 15 points and 13 rebounds, his first career double double, and had a huge influence down in the post against Purdue’s two big men.

The freshman continued to live up to his “savage” nickname as he fought for rebounds, making a few one-armed ones, and had six offensive rebounds to help his team continue offensive possessions.

Black had earned more playing time because of good practices according to head coach John Groce. The freshman played big minutes in the team’s loss to Indiana. After facing some difficulty at the beginning of the season, Groce is happy to see the freshman mature.

“(I’m) proud of Black for staying the course,” Groce said. “(Black) could’ve pouted but learned and got better. (We’re) excited about his development.”

Black was not the only Illinois big man to have a big game. After scoring no points and collecting only two rebounds, Egwu responded with a big game. The senior center scored 11 points and had seven rebounds.

He had a huge presence in the post, as he and Black limited Purdue’s big man duo to 10 points and nine rebounds combined. The two had to play smart for most of the last 10 minutes of the game as both had four fouls each. Both finished the game and helped lead Illinois to the win.

Egwu also limited the shots around the basket. With his five blocks, Egwu became Illinois’ all-time block leader with 179 career blocks. Purdue head coach Matt Painter was the latest Big Ten coach to praise Egwu for what he brings to his team. Egwu was just happy to be able to accomplish the feat with his team.

“(The blocks record) is great,” Egwu said. “(It) speaks to being able to be healthy. (I) appreciate all the time I’ve had here.”

With an injury-struck team, the two big men responded to the challenge. Malcolm Hill led the team with 18 points and six rebounds and turned it on in the second half when his team needed him to pull away.

The Illini will need the same effort without key players as Illinois travels to Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Golden Gopher on Saturday afternoon. If the team continues to have role players set up, the team might be able to weather the storm without it leaders.

“We’ve been dealt those cards,”Groce said about the team’s injuries. “We have to play them the best we can.”