The faces of Illinois basketball led the Illini in their 69-65 win over Yale on Wednesday.
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn both stepped up and took form into how head coach John Groce expected the two to play together. The duo has struggled acclimating with one another after Nunn missed the first few games due to injury, forcing Hill to carry a more important role at the beginning of the season.
Groce was happy to see the duo return to last season’s form.
“These guys shoulder a lot,” Groce said. “I thought they really competed.”
Yale hung around with Illinois for much of the first half until the Illini created a nine-point lead with 10 minutes left in the game. The Bulldogs gave the Illini opportunities to run away with the game — Yale had 15 turnovers in the first half and finished with 23 — but Illinois struggled to make wide open shots and allowed Yale to stick around, only trailing 33-25. Illinois made three of its 12 attempts and finished shooting 8-of-26 from beyond the arc.
Illinois, just like it did against Notre Dame a week ago, came out sluggish in the second half and allowed Yale to take the lead. The two teams exchanged leads for much of second half until and Nunn and took Hill took over. Nunn made back-to-back 3-pointers to give Illinois a cushions and Hill scored five quick points to give the Illini a five-point lead with 3:43 left in the game.
The Bulldogs tried to make a last-minute push, but the Illini hung on to the lead, with Nunn making the last two shots to deal the win.
Nunn continued his recent success, including Saturday’s game against Western Carolina when he scored 27, against the Bulldogs, finishing with 28 points. The junior guard was aggressive from the start, driving to the rim while also making a few 3-point attempts. Nunn made 9-of-16 from the field and nailed six of his eight shots from beyond the arc.
Nunn averages 21 points in the games that he’s played this season. Although his quick start might surprise some fans, Hill knows how hard-working his teammate from freshman year is.
“I’ve seen what I’ve seen the last few years,” Hill said of Nunn. “It doesn’t surprise me … to see the hard work pay off, I’m really proud of him.”
Hill rebounded after struggling during the past few games, including a coach’s decision to bench the junior for much of the second half against Western Carolina. He finished with 20 points, shooting 7-of-19 from the field and 1-of-7 from 3-point range. Hill continued to take shots despite his struggles, knowing that eventually he would turn it around.
Although there’s still work left to be done on his game, Hill knows that he can still improve.
“I’m feeling great,” Hill said. “I see improvement with our team. You saw it today. Everyone had a big impact on the game.”
Illinois will have to turn around quickly as the team will travel to Chicago to play UIC at the United Center on Saturday. Groce knows that playing at the United Center might excite players, especially the freshmen, but he and the older players will emphasis how the entire team can’t let emotions take over.
“You can’t play out of character because you’re playing home,” Groce said. “We need them to focus and to play like they did today.”
Michal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @mdwojak94