Illinois dropped its home-opening conference game by a point to Maryland. It was a tough loss for a team still searching for its first Big Ten win.
Illini Coach Brad Underwood expected that energy to carry over against Austin Peay, but despite a 64-57 win Wednesday night against Austin Peay, Underwood wasn't pleased his team's effort.
"There's a passion that you have to have to play," Underwood said. "I try to bring that every day. I try to do my job every day with the same consistency and passion and I expect that from our team."
Te'Jon Lucas dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds on Illinois' first possession, and the miscues kept coming. The Illini finished with a season-high 24 turnovers and never looked comfortable against the Governor's smothering defense.
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Redhshirt junior Michael Finke and Leron Black helped Illinois overcome a slow start, and were the only Illini to score in double figures. Finke scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Black recorded 16 points and four rebounds.
The Illini (7-3) shot just 39.6 percent from the field and made just 21 field goals, but it was enough to snap a three-game losing streak.
Illinois made 6 of 9 shot attempts to start the game and jumped out to an early 13-6 lead but went scoreless for almost six minutes. The Governors went on an 11-0 run to take the lead but weren't able to sustain an offensive rhythm either, shooting only 41.4 percent from the field.
"A tough night offensively, with nine assists," Underwood said. "We have to figure out how to make an entry (pass) so we can just get into (our offense)."
The turning point came with just under five minutes remaining. Locked at 50, Kipper Nichols stole an entry pass to the post and pushed the ball ahead. On the other end, Da'Monte Williams spotted up on the right wing, and nailed a 3-pointer to push the Illini ahead for good.
With 19.6 seconds left, the Governors still had a chance. Trailing by three, they needed one defensive stop to get the ball back for a potential game-tying shot.
But on the most crucial possession of the game, Lucas was able to get all the way to the rim before being fouled on a layup attempt. He knocked down both free throws to make it a two-possession game and seal the victory.
"It's really, really good to fight through a game like tonight," Underwood said.
Underwood changed his starting lineup for the first time all year against the Governors. Williams started in place of fellow freshman Mark Smith, and finished with five points, four rebounds and a team-high three steals.
The Governors were led by freshman Terry Taylor and senior Averyl Ugba. Both players combined for 28 points and 15 rebounds, but their performances weren't enough to help Austin Peay (4-5) steal a victory from its fourth Power Five opponent of the season.
"I was happy with our kids fight," head coach Matt Figger said. "We put ourselves in position to win the game."
Illinois now has won 12 consecutive non-conference home games and four straight against Austin Peay.
Figger and Underwood worked together at Kansas State and South Carolina. The two spent six years as assistant coaches under Frank Martin.
"That was like an old slug fist in the sandbox," Underwood said. "Every play call he made I knew and every play call I made he knew."
Illinois and Austin Peay combined for 49 turnovers. In the first half, both squads actually had more turnovers than made field goals. The Illini had 15 turnovers and just 10 made field goals, while the Governors managed to score just 11 field goals and committed 12 turnovers.
Aaron Jordan came into Wednesday's game leading the nation in 3-point field goal percentage and averaging 12.9 points. He knocked down 15 of his 23 attempts through the first nine games of the season, including 3 of 5 in the Illini's Big Ten opener. But against the Governors, he took just two shots from downtown — missed both — and was scoreless for the first time all season.
Austin Peay: The Governors struggled on offense, but applied a lot of pressure on defense. Austin Peay had six different players record a steal and made things very difficult for the Illini on the perimeter.
Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with slow starts and scored just 26 points first-half points for the second straight game.
Austin Peay: The Governors are off until next Saturday, Dec. 16. Austin Peay will take on Evansville to cap a two-game road trip.
Illinois: The Illini are back in action Friday night at UNLV. Freshman Brandon McCoy - averaging 20 points and 11.2 rebounds - has led the Runnin' Rebels to a 4-2 record at home.