CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — First year Illinois coach Brad Underwood spent the past week pushing junior forward Michael Finke to shoot the ball more often.
The budding star scored 22 points and teammate junior guard Aaron Jordan added 16 to lead Illinois over North Carolina Central 86-73 Friday at State Farm Center.
“I barked and got aggressive with Michael all week,” Underwood said after the game. “He listened, although I did get mad at him for taking a 3 when we had an easy layup opportunity. But, well, he listened to me.”
Reggie Gardner Jr. scored 18 points for N.C. Central, and Zacarry Douglas and Jordan Perkins added 11 points each.
Illinois (6-0) looked lackluster early, allowing the Eagles (2-5) to mount an 8-0 run midway through the first half to take a 35-34 lead at the half. N.C. Central had its own issues early, including turning the ball over on its first two possessions of the game.
After the break, Finke and Jordan traded 3s, with Finke tossing in a couple of dunks for good measure, as the Illini put together their own 8-0 run and easily coasted to the victory.
Underwood gave sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas credit for his smothering defense as the second half started.
“Te’Jon made that happen,” Underwood said. “He took control in the locker room at halftime and on the floor. Finke and Jordan got the points, but Te’Jon drove the bus tonight.”
“Te’Jon’s defense really sparked our offense to start that second half,” Finke said. “And our teammates found us for the shots.”
Despite the win, Underwood and his players weren’t thrilled with the team’s performance, with Wake Forest and Northwestern waiting in the wings.
“Part of my responsibility is to get the players ready mentally, and I let them down,” Underwood said. “We need to step it up before we play the upcoming games on the road. Still, I’m looking forward to the big boy games.”
“Tonight, it was poor execution and missed assignments,” the junior guard said. “We need to practice hard this week and turn that around, especially with the Power 5 games we have coming up.”
BIG PICTURE: Finke and Jordan were deadly from beyond the 3-point line in the second half. Finke went 5 of 11 from 3, but sank three in the early minutes of the second half that seemed to fire up the Illini’s offense. Jordan went 4 of 5 from downtown, with three of them coming during the opening seven minutes of the final half.
TURNING POINT: Jordan hit a three-pointer less than a minute into the second half, which opened the floodgates for Illinois. He and Finke traded baskets for the next three minutes as the Illini went on an 8-0 run, which proved too much for the Eagles.
HIGHLIGHT REEL: Finke alternated 3-pointers with two majestic dunks that brought the crowd to its feet.
NCCU plays Southeast Missouri State on Sunday at home.
Illinois hits the road and will meet Wake Forest on Tuesday.
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