It was far more difficult than a win over a 1-5 team should have been, but in the end, the Illini walked out of the United Center with a victory and a record above .500.
Illinois struggled early and trailed during the second half — blowing a double-digit halftime lead — but shot 60 percent over the final 20 minutes, gutting out a comeback win over UIC on Saturday afternoon by a score of 83-79.
It was a slow start for the Illini, who made just two of their first 13 shots and missed their first five tries from 3-point range, finding themselves in an early 12-5 hole. Still down four midway through the first half, Illinois used an 11-0 run to streak into the lead, getting made 3-pointers from Jalen Coleman-Lands and Malcolm Hill. The Flames cut that margin down to as little as three points, but Michael Finke accounted for 12 consecutive Illini points, part of a 12-3 run that got the Illini to their biggest lead of the first half. That lead was at 11 at the break.
Illinois shot just 39.4 percent in the first half, going just 6-for-16 from 3-point range and just 9-for-17 from the free-throw line. UIC had a slight rebounding advantage but turned the ball over nine time compared to just three for Illinois.
Finke had 14 points at the break to lead the Illini, while the Flames got a sensational performance from Dominique Matthews, who scored 18 points in the first 20 minutes.
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UIC came out of the break shooting well, and it had the Illinois lead down to six before it expanded back out to double digits. But the Illini went ice cold from there, missing five straight shots and turning the ball over twice while the Flames continued their hot shooting. A 14-0 UIC run took it from down 10 to up four midway through the second half, while the Illini went nearly five minutes without a point.
The UIC lead grew as big as five, but Illinois got six straight points to move back in front with seven and a half minutes to play. The teams traded baskets and modest leads from there. UIC bombed in a triple to make it a 65-63 game, but Coleman-Lands splashed in his fourth 3 of the game to put Illinois back in front at 66-65 with about four minutes remaining.
After another tie, Hill made a pair of free throws and hit a jumper to put the Illini ahead by four, and following two traded buckets, Hill hit another free throw before the two teams swapped 3-pointers. Hill hit four more free throws in the game’s final minute to push the lead out to seven. UIC made a couple late 3-pointers to keep things tight, but Illinois made the free throws needed to hold off another charge.
Illinois finished shooting 47.2 percent from the field, including a 60-percent mark in the second half. UIC finished with a 47.6-percent shooting mark on the game, 55.6 percent in the second half after making 13 of their first 19 second-half shots.
Malcolm Hill had a big second half and finished with a game-high 22 points, getting 11 of those from the free-throw line. Finke finished with 14, as did Kendrick Nunn, and Coleman-Lands had 15, including four made 3s, after going scoreless in the last two games.
Dikembe Dixson had 20 points and 10 rebounds for UIC, and Matthews finished with 18 points, all in the first half.
Illinois improved to 6-5 on the season with the win, above .500 for the first time this season. Just two games remain on the non-conference schedule, against South Dakota and Missouri.