No. 16 Illinois needs to beware of a classic trap game Friday when it hosts Division I newcomer Lindenwood in Champaign, Ill.
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,” Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. “We’ll definitely have to clean up late-game execution.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood believes that his team is on a positive trajectory despite the disappointing collapse.
“We’re pretty good,” Underwood said. “We’re going to be really good. We’re right there. Our ceiling, we’re not even close to it.”
Jayden Epps led the Illini with 14 points off the bench, while Hawkins paced the starters with 10 points. The key stat for Illinois was free-throw shooting, as it shot 4 of 9 from the foul line, compared to 25 of 32 for Virginia.
Terrence Shannon Jr., who leads the team in scoring at 21.2 points per game, was held to a season-low nine points and also committed six turnovers before fouling out. Dain Dainja, who is second on the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game, mustered only five in 18 minutes.
Still, Hawkins believes that his team’s performance showed the rest of the nation what the Illini are capable of.
“I think I learned we’re right there with the best of them,” Hawkins said. “I think we can compete with anybody in the country. The way we can use different pieces, sub multiple guys in, we’re tough.”
Illinois must make sure not to look past 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 stay grounded after a thrilling win on Wednesday night. They trailed Idaho State by one point in the waning seconds of overtime before Chris Childs knocked down a mid-range jumper with two seconds to play.
Childs scored a team-high 23 points for Lindenwood, while Kevin Caldwell Jr. added 20 points. Cam Burrell chipped in 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting for the Lions.
“What an awesome night for our players, I’m so happy for them,” Lions head coach Kyle Gerdeman said. “These guys are giving us everything they have, and they deserve to feel good.”
In its first season as a Division I program, Lindenwood already has faced Dayton and Missouri in the season’s first month — both on the road. Those two games did not go particularly well as they lost to Dayton by 27 and fell to Missouri by 29.
Still, Underwood sees a dangerous squad that presents a lot of challenges for his defense.
“A team that is small, athletic as heck,” Underwood said. “They shoot it from all five spots. They’re gonna play in transition, and they’re very, very good off the bounce.”
Illinois trounced Lindenwood — then a Division II program — in a 117-65 shellacking three years ago. The Illini shot nearly 62 percent from the field and outrebounded the Lions, 43-24, that day in the only previous meeting between the teams.