(Photo credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
No. 23 Illinois hosts Southern on Sunday night in Champaign at 7 p.m. Central Time, and Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood is hoping his team remembers to start playing on time in this matchup, unlike its effort Friday night.
"I don't have a great answer for you," he said of his team's slow start after Friday night's 87-64 nonconference win over Valparaiso. "I don't like them."
There wasn't much to like about Illinois' first half against the team picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference. The subpar effort allowed Valparaiso's Isaiah Stafford to light it up for 23 points while Illinois played miserably in most phases, allowing the Beacons to take a 45-38 lead at the break.
In the second half, however, the Illini (3-1) returned to form, outscoring Valpo by 30 points as Terrence Shannon Jr., Dain Dainja, Luke Goode and Ty Rodgers all finished in double figures. Shannon tallied 22 points, while Dainja collected 16, Goode tied his career high with 13 points and Rodgers finished with 10.
"I was really proud of our guys the second half," Underwood said. "We came out with a different energy and that was really the key of the game."
In addition to his offense, Shannon initiated player-led discussions during a quick halftime break. Illinois was back on the floor by the 7-minute mark of intermission and was clearly a different team.
"It was about our effort and our defensive intensity," Shannon said. "Once we picked that up, we know we are one of the best defensive teams in the country and we showed that in the second half."
Shannon is leading the Illinois attack at 18.5 ppg, while Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask is the second-leading scorer at 9.5. The Illini are struggling badly at the foul line with a 12-of-24 performance Friday night pushing them to a ghastly 56.6 percent for the season.
Southern (1-3) also played Friday night, dropping an 88-80 overtime decision at Western Illinois. The Jaguars led by four points with under a minute left but fouled James Dent with two seconds left and he made two free throws to force the extra session.
Southern gave it up in overtime, getting outscored 16-8 for a bitter loss. The result erased good performances by Tai'Reon Joseph, who scored 23 points, and JaRonn Wilkens, who added 12 points and nine rebounds.
The Jaguars are in the fifth game of a season-opening eight-game road trip that's taken them to soft touches such as Arizona and will send them to Marquette later this month. Their one win was an 85-71 drilling of UNLV on Nov. 8.
Southern has a first-year coach in Kevin Johnson, who replaced Sean Woods. Johnson had to replace the team's top five scorers from last season, when the Jaguars went 15-17, but is excited about the task. Johnson's mother and older brother graduated from the Baton Rouge, La., school.
"There was always a connection," he said of Southern. "This was not the first time this job was open ... it felt like the right time."
Illinois won the schools' only previous meeting 102-55 on Nov. 10, 2017.
--Field Level Media