Illinois Basketball: Illini strong second half leads to sweep of Nebraska

Jan 31, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) dribbles the ball against Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Denim Dawson (12) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 31, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) dribbles the ball against Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Denim Dawson (12) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

The Illinois basketball team closed out a critical month with a two-game sweep against Nebraska and has now won seven of its last eight.

January 4 seems like a distant memory. On that fateful night, the Illini seemed to have hit a wall, a wall that few thought it could break through and turn things around.

Nearly a month later, the Illini have found their stride and have won seven out of eight games, as they swept the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Champaign, 72-56, on Tuesday night.

All of a sudden, the top of the Big Ten is becoming must-watch television, as Illinois finds itself all alone in second place, as other league action saw Iowa beat Northwestern and Maryland upset No. 21, Indiana. The Hoosiers beat Illinois earlier in the month, as a mid-February rematch in Bloomington looms large.

The Illini improved to 16-6 overall and 7-4 in the conference, while Nebraska dropped its fourth straight and has not won a game since a 63-60 triumph against Ohio State back on January 18. The Cornhuskers now sit 10-13 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten.

The game on Tuesday was the polar opposite of what occurred in Lincoln just a few weeks ago. Nebraska, the league’s second-worst team, gave Illinois all it could handle, as it held several slim first-half leads, including a margin as big as four at the 8:52 mark of the opening frame.

This is uncommon for an Illini team who only has two home blemishes to date. The Cornhuskers’ Sam Griesel led all scorers with 21 points, finishing 7-of-17 from the field and 2-of-5 from beyond the three-point arc.

Illinois committed 12 turnovers and went through a dry spell near the end of the first half. After squandering the lead, the Illini watched as the Cornhuskers rallied to enter the halftime break trailing 38-37.

Nebraska would start the second half strong, eventually seeing the visitors take a 50-48 lead to the dismay of the State Farm Center crowd. A crowd that, for much of the game, looked like they cared more about free McDonalds chicken nuggets instead of watching their team pull off a win.

The last 11 minutes of regulation ultimately decided the Big Ten contest, as Illinois snapped out of its funk and went to work. A stout defensive effort, along with a distinct bench presence, saw the Illini hold Nebraska to just 19 second-half points, its fewest total against an opposing team this season.

Illinois closed the game on a 24-6 run, nearly identical to their win in Madison last Saturday. This end-of-game scoring spree saw Ty Rodgers have one of his best outings, scoring 12 points and grabbing three rebounds and three assists.

Matthew Mayer, arguably the team’s glue guy, scored five second-half points, which capped off a 16-point, three-rebound performance. Coleman Hawkins also went 6-of-6 from the free throw line, as he has continued to showcase his NBA-caliber talent during the 7-1 stretch.

The Illini also controlled the offensive glass well, scoring 11 second-chance points and holding Nebraska scoreless for the final 4:28 of regulation, as the game was well out of reach in the final minutes.

Brad Underwood spoke on Jayden Epps and his progression, while also making a bold statement that should turn heads as the week goes on. Epps had another productive outing, finishing with 12 points. In fact, the freshman trio of Epps, Sencire Harris, and Rodgers, combined for 27 points — arguably the game’s deciding factor.

"“He’s one of the best freshmen guards in the country,” Underwood said."

Underwood also complimented the rest of the freshman group, saying that they played hard when perhaps the rest of the team was not 100% locked in.

Whatever the case may be, the Illini finished the month of January 7-2, have won three straight, and put themselves in prime position for a successful finish to a rollercoaster season, at least so far.

How does February start out for the Illinois basketball program?

The Illini’s schedule will only get tougher from here on out, as the Orange and Blue will travel to Iowa City on Saturday for a long-awaited rematch with the Hawkeyes. It is the first meeting since March 6, 2022, where Illinois clinched a share of the regular season league title on its home floor.

Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. CT on FOX, as it is the only matchup between the two programs during the regular season. The Illini will then return home for games against Minnesota and Rutgers a week from Tuesday and Saturday, respectively, before getting ready for a two-game road trip that could decide Big Ten Tournament seeding when all is said and done.

Next. 5 observations from the Illini win over Nebraska. dark