The #16 Illinois has to watch out for a classic trap game on Friday when it hosts Division I newcomer Lindenwood in Champaign, Illinois.
The Fighting Illini (4-1) are coming off a challenging two-game stretch in Las Vegas in which they defeated then-No. 8 UCLA 79-70 before falling to then No. 16 Virginia 70-61. They actually led the Cavaliers with under four minutes remaining before Virginia dominated the final stretch.
“There’s a lot to learn from this experience,” said Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins. “We will definitely need to clean up execution at the end of the game.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood believes his team is on a positive trajectory despite the disappointing slump.
“We’re doing pretty well,” Underwood said. “We’re going to be really good. We’re right there. Our ceiling, we’re not even close.”
Jayden Epps led the Illini with 14 points off the bench, while Hawkins beat the starters by 10 points. The key statistic for Illinois was his free throw, as he shot 4-of-9 from the foul line, compared to Virginia’s 25-of-32.
Terrence Shannon Jr., who leads the team in scoring with 21.2 points per game, was held to a season-low nine points and also committed six turnovers before failing. Dain Dainja, who is second on the team in scoring with 14.0 points per game, racked up just five in 18 minutes.
Still, Hawkins believes his team’s performance has shown the rest of the nation what the Illini are capable of.
“I think I’ve learned that we’re right up there with the best of them,” Hawkins said. “I think we can compete with anyone in the country. The way we can use different bits, replace more guys, we’re tough.”
Illinois needs to make sure they look no further than Lindenwood with a three-game slate against Syracuse, No. 23 Maryland and No. 4 Texas on the horizon.
The Lions (3-4), meanwhile, will look to keep their feet on the ground after Wednesday night’s thrilling victory. They trailed Idaho State by one point in the waning seconds of overtime before Chris Childs knocked down a midrange jumper with two seconds to play.
Childs scored 23 points for Lindenwood, while Kevin Caldwell Jr. added 20 points. Cam Burrell hit 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting for the Lions.
“What a fantastic night for our players, I’m so happy for them,” said Lions coach Kyle Gerdeman. “These kids are giving us everything they have and they deserve to feel good.”
In its first season as a Division I program, Lindenwood has already faced Dayton and Missouri in the first month of the season, both on the road. Those two games didn’t go particularly well as they lost to Dayton by 27 and fell to Missouri by 29.
However, Underwood sees a dangerous team that presents many challenges for their defense.
“A team that’s small, athletic as heck,” Underwood said. “They shoot from all five points. They will play in transition and are very, very good at rebounding.”
Illinois beat Lindenwood – then a Division II program – in a bombardment 117-65 three years ago. The Illini shot nearly 62% from the field and outscored the Lions, 43-24, that day in the only previous meeting between the two teams.