Illinois, Hill roll past Southeast Missouri in opener, 81-62
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois forward Malcolm Hill missed his first four shots from the field Friday, mirroring his team’s slow start in the season opener against Southeast Missouri State.
But the senior was pulling down rebounds, and the shots started falling late in the first half.
Hill finished with 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Illini past Southeast Missouri 81-62.
Maverick Morgan added 16 points for Illinois and was 8 of 8 from the field. Michael Finke scored 12 and pulled down seven rebounds, while sixth-year guard Tracy Abrams scored 13 in his return after two-straight seasons out with injuries.
Southeast Missouri opened hot, riding Antonius Cleveland’s eight early points for a 25-18 lead and keeping a sparse opening-night crowd quiet.
But the Illini turned their defense up and started finding the basket, going on a 12-0 run to turn that seven-point deficit into a 30-25 lead on a 3-pointer from the left corner from guard Tracy Abrams.
Illinois coach John Groce was happy his team survived the early charge, something he credited to having a team heavy on seniors.
“When our shots weren’t going in early, I thought our defense was kind of porous early, yet we kind of just kept hanging in there,” Groce said.
Illinois finished the night 58.6 percent from the field, including 19-22 from 2-pount range.
The key to turning on Illinois’ defense was communication, Abrams said.
“We talked a little bit more down the stretch, we took on the challenge even more. We started talking more.”
Southeast Missouri coach Rick Ray liked his team’s fast start. But the Redhawks did not respond on defense when Illinois started finding the basket, he said.
“I told our guys I have every confidence we’ll be able to score the ball,” a hoarse Ray said. “The question is defense and rebounds.”
Milos Vranes led Southeast Missouri with 12 points. Cleveland finished with 10.
Southeast Missouri: The Redhawks are coming off a 5-24 season and struggled in their only exhibition game, trailing by six at the half against Division II Missouri S&T before pulling out an 84-77 win. After taking the early lead on Friday, the Redhawks were mostly outmanned against a team with far bigger players. One of their biggest problems was on the boards. The Illini outrebounded Southeast Missouri 37-22.
Illinois: One of Illinois’ most pressing early questions will be who emerges as the primary point guards. The team lacked a true point guard at times last season, one of the key problems in a 15-19 season. Abrams started Friday and senior Jaylon Tate backed him up but also shared the court at time, playing 25 minutes and scoring just two points but dishing out six assists. Talented freshman Te’Jon Lucas didn’t play until 17 seconds were left in the game. Abrams’ night was encouraging.
Groce said he liked the combination of Abrams and Tate on the floor together against a team that specializes in forcing turnovers.
“Those guys know each other like the back of their hands. I thought they had some good chemistry,” he said.
Abrams hadn’t played a regular-season game in two full seasons before Friday. He missed all of 2014-15 with a torn Achilles tendon and all of last season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear. He was a welcome sight Friday, scoring the first points for the Illini on a 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game. He played 27 minutes.
Illinois is deep in big men, with Morgan and Michael Finke — both 6-foot-10 — and the 6-foot-11 Mike Thorne Jr. Morgan and Finke spent much of the night on the floor together. Between them the three scored 30 and had 15 rebounds.
Southeast Missouri’s home opener will be Sunday against Hannibal-LaGrange, an NAIA school in Hannibal, Missouri.
Illinois hosts Northern Kentucky Sunday in the second game of a five-game homestand.
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