Nunn, Finke Carry Illinois Basketball Past Western Carolina

(Mike Granse / USA Today Sports)

(Mike Granse / USA Today Sports)

Illinois head basketball coach John Groce surprised many fans and reporters when he benched junior guard Kendrick Nunn before his team’s Saturday home game against Western Carolina.

That decision proved to be unimportant as Nunn entered a little over a minute into the game, where he and redshirt freshman Michael Finke led the Illini in their 80-68 win over the Catamount.

After commenting on how well the team played in its win, Groce couldn’t avoid the two players who led his team on the scoresheet and on the court.

“I thought these two (Nunn and Finke) were really efficient and aggressive,” Groce said. “I’m happy for the guys. They’ve been through a lot.”

Nunn led the team with 27 points and added six rebounds and two assists. Mike Brown led the way for Western Carolina with 23 points and had five rebounds and five assists.

The junior guard quickly made an impact, hitting a three on his first play. Nunn made three more 3-point shots and finished the first half leading the team in scoring with 17 points. Nunn shot 6-of-8 from the field and made both of his free throw attempts.

Nunn continued to lead the Illini in the second half with 10 points, making 3-of-6 from the field and he missed the his only 3-point attempt. He was aggressive after he scored 13 points against Notre Dame on Wednesday and made his impact with fellow guard Malcolm Hill having a hard time finding his shot early in the game.

Finke took advantage of his height advantage over the players on Western Carolina. The 6-foot-10 forward wasn’t afraid to get down in the post against a team whose tallest player was 6-foot-7 and he finished shooting 9-of-13 from the field. The former high school No. 3 showed he can handle the ball and shoot from long distance despite his height. Finke made 4-of-6 from beyond the arc.

The forward also played well defensively down in the post. Finke played the center position for much of the game after Maverick Morgan failed to be effective defensively. The group of big men is trying to adapt to the position with the absence of Michael Thorne Jr., who suffered a meniscus injury that will sideline the center indefinitely.

Nunn’s success comes after he missed the first few games of the season because of an injury. Although Nunn wanted to play and isn’t at 100 percent, he mentioned that the time away from playing helped grow as a player and a leader.

“I’ve learned from observing,” Nunn said. “I want guys to match me in my energy level.”

Finke’s strong play not only surprised Groce, but also the Western Illinois coaching staff. Although they saw video of what Finke could do, they weren’t expecting him to perform the way that he did Saturday.

“Michael Finke, we weren’t quite expecting him to show up tonight,” Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunter said. “He didn’t need much space tonight … I was very impressed.”

Finke’s and Nunn’s good play came on a day when Hill struggled for much of the game. Groce mentioned Friday that he would rest the junior more and Hill played 13 minutes Saturday. The guard heated up in the second half after sitting out the first six minutes, leading Illinois on a run when Western Carolina tried to take the lead.

Hill finished with with 10 points and shot 5-of-8 from the field, 0-of-2 from 3-point range.

Groce wouldn’t comment on Hill’s lack of playing, saying that it’s been the coach and the player. He did admit that the coaching staff used the junior a lot at the beginning of the season, forcing them to take it easy on him lately.

“Malcolm’s a great kid and a really good player and we’ve rode him really in the season,” Groce said. “We need other players to play and for him to have a mental break from it all.”

The junior’s play helped stall a late run made by the Catamount. Western Carolina tied the game at 50 and 59 in the middle of the second half with hot shooting, especially from beyond the arc. The Catamount made 11-of-24 from 3-points range, 7-of-12 in the second half. Western Carolina tied the game twice but couldn’t overtake Illinois, never holding the lead.

The Illini will now have a couple days to relax before they return to action against Yale on Wednesday. After spending so much time together with tournaments and travel issues, Groce is happy that his players can get away from the grind.

“I’m anxious for them to get away,” Groce said. “It’s been a heck of time and they deserve to rest.”