Fresh off a 20 point victory over Colgate this past weekend, the 1-0 Illinois Fighting Illini welcomed the 1-0 St. Francis (NY) Terriers on Monday night. There were 11,640 fans in attendance on Veteran’s Day to watch Illinois go up against St. Francis, who also entered the contest after picking up a win as they won 76-65 at Lafayette last Friday. St. Francis finished 15-15 overall and fourth in the Northeast Conference last season.
After hitting 13 three pointers in their opener, the Illini kept their hot shooting going early, as the game started with back to back three pointers from sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams went on to score ten points in the first half.
The Terriers fought off the Illini’s hot start with a three pointer of their own from sophomore Kevin Douglas, giving St. Francis an 11-10 lead after the game’s first four minutes.
The Illini answered with a 10-3 run of their own, adding two more three pointers from seniors Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson. Griffey hit 3 three pointers and led the Illini with 13 points in the first half.
St. Francis refused to go away as a three pointer from guard P.J. Santavenere cut the Terriers’ deficit to one point.
Illinois attacked the rim early and often, attempting 9 free throws in the game’s first 11 minutes. Illinois shot 13 free throws in the first half.
Sophomore Myke Henry joined in on the Illini’s three point shoot out, putting the team up 36-25 with four minutes left in the first half. Illinois went on a 15-0 run to finish the half, entering the locker room with a 45-25 lead.
Francis St. finally ended the Illini run at the start of the second half with a hook shot from senior forward Akeem Johnson.
Illinois continued to attack the rim as senior Brandon Paul made two trips to the line within the first two minutes of the half. Abrams joined Paul at the line after finishing an acrobatic and-one lay-in.
Griffey continued to carry Illinois at both ends, finishing with a game-high 17 points, only one point short of his career high. Griffey is known as a spot-up shooter but continues to improve his game off the dribble.
“I’m getting a lot of shots up, left pull-ups,” Griffey said. “Guys have been running me up the line so it’s there, it’s been open and I’m gonna keep utilizing that.”
Sophomore Nnnanna Egwu got another start at center for the Illini and showed off his full arsenal of skills, hitting a couple mid range jumpers and continuing to score buckets inside. He finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds.
A flashy no look pass from Paul to sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand for the dunk finish got the fans at Assembly Hall on their feet and put the Illini up 62-33 with 15:44 remaining. The Illini were efficient with the ball, as they only turned the ball over eight times compared to St. Francis’ 17 giveaways. Coach John Groce gives credit to his point guards for maintaining an efficient assist to turnover ratio.
“We’re getting better there, it starts with the guys who play point for us,” Groce said. “Tracy and Brandon were ten to four tonight and they take a lot of pride in that. They’ve gotten better. Tracy from the first week of practice until now, is like leaps and bounds. Brandon the same thing. We take good care of the ball, we’re starting to understand that a little better. We’re throwing sharper passes and taking more pride and taking care of the ball. We’re gonna need that going forward.”
In his debut for the Illini, walk-on freshman guard Mike LaTulip poured in a three pointer from the corner and made two at the free throw line the next possession, giving the Illini their biggest lead of the game at 34 points. After a jumper by St. Francis sophomore guard Jalen Cannon, Bertrand added a three pointer to extend the Illini lead to 72-37 with 12:09 left in the game.
Down big, the Terriers continued to battle back, going on a 7-0 after back-to-back buckets from Johnson, who finished with 13 points to lead the Terriers. Illinois was held without a point for five minutes until Egwu broke the cold spell with a bucket in the paint.
Transfer senior Sam McLaurin gave the Illini some much needed energy off the bench in limited minutes. He followed up a gigantic swat on one end with a powerful jam on the other, putting the Fighting Illini up 81-54 with 4:02 left.
The Fighting Illini continued to dominate from behind the arc, hitting 11 three pointers between seven different shooters on the night. Last season, the Illini’s season high was 11 three pointers in a game and they’ve reached that total in both games this season.
The stellar shooting and sharp passing from the Fighting Illini proved too much for St. Francis. Illinois went on to win by a final of 89-64.
The Fighting Illini improved to 2-0 on the season and will start to head to Hawaii immediately following the game. The Illini will spend ten days there where they will take on Hawaii and compete in the Maui Invitational. Groce curbs his enthusiasm over the Illini’s “business trip.”
“Let’s put it this way. My wife is gonna have a lot more fun, as you guys would define fun, then I’m going to over the ten days that we play four games,” Groce said. “I’m crossing my fingers and hoping they don’t have very good shopping out there because I could already feel my back pocket burning right now.”
The next ten days will be anything but a vacation for the Fighting Illini as they have tough slate of games ahead.