CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After a 47-point victory in his Illinois debut, coach Brad Underwood said that it was easy.
He cautioned his team to not to get ahead of themselves because the competition would get tougher, and his words held true in Sunday’s 77-74 win over UT Martin.
The Skyhawks dropped their season opener to Marshall but responded with a strong effort against their first power-five opponent of the year.
Down by three with under a minute to go, UT Martin had two chances to tie the game but ultimately came up short.
Leron Black scored a career-high 23 points and snatched eight rebounds, helping Illinois avoid an early season upset.
“I’ll take that every single night if you tell me Leron’s going to do that,” Underwood said.
The Illini led by as much as 19, but the Skyhawks – guided by Delfincko Bogan’s 23 points and four rebounds – wouldn’t go away easily.
Trailing 38-51, UT Martin went on an 11-0 run at the 15:30 mark of the second half, capped off by a lucky bankshot 3-pointer from Matthew Butler that cut the lead to four.
Illinois pushed the margin back up to 15 with 4:34 left, but the Skyhawks responded once again with a late-game 18-6 run.
The Illini had one last chance to put it away, but Black missed two shots in the paint on their final possession.
On the second miss, Butler snagged the rebound and headed the other way for the potential game-tying 3-pointer. He had a good look on the initial attempt, but missed the right-wing pull-up jumper.
After a scrum for the ball, it was deflected out of bounds off of Illinois, giving UT Martin one final shot to force overtime.
With 0.7 second left and underneath their own basket, the Skyhawks inbounded the ball to Butler who attempted a deep 3-pointer right in front of the scorer’s table.
The shot fell a few feet short and the home crowd erupted as Illinois survived.
“I’m not one on moral victories, but I am proud of my guys,” coach Anthony Stewart said. “I know if we have that kind of effort . we’re going to be just fine.”
The Illini started off much slower than in their season opener, missing seven of their first 10 shots. But Black found a rhythm early.
He nailed the first basket of the game on a turnaround jumper from the free throw line, and finished the first half with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Through two games he is averaging a team-high 18.5 points.
“(I’m) just trusting the system,” Black said. “Trying to be in the right spots.”
Illinois: The Illini came back down to earth after scoring 102 points in their season opener, shooting just 28.6 percent from behind the arc. UT Martin’s zone defense showed that it may be an effective approach against Illinois.
UT Martin: The Skyhawks dropped to 0-2 on the season, but put up a solid effort behind Bogan, Butler and Dominque Williams. All three upperclassmen scored in double figures for UT Martin, who lost its top three scorers from last season.
Junior Aaron Jordan is off to a hot start with his new coach. Jordan scored 23 points all of last season, but in the Illini’s first two games he’s already eclipsed that mark. He scored a career-high 17 points in the season opener and followed it up with another 10 points against UT Martin. His most memorable shot came on a 3-pointer from the right corner with just under five minutes to go in the second half.
“He’s been incredible,” Underwood said. “I’ve got to probably get him more minutes, honestly.”
Illinois has attempted 42 three pointers through two games but has only made 10. Jordan is the only Illini shooting above 40 percent from behind the arc. Mark Alstork and Trent Frazier lead the team in attempts but have combined to go 2-15 from downtown.
Illinois: Illinois will face DePaul Friday night in the third game of a season-opening six-game home stand. The Blue Demons are 1-1 and have four players averaging double-figures.
UT Martin: The Skyhawks are back in action for their home opener Wednesday against North Carolina Central. The Eagles are looking to bounce back from a 10-point season-opening loss to Illinois-Chicago.