It hasn't been a pretty start to the season for Illinois, but after sticking with the No. 4 team in the country for the majority of Saturday night's game, the Illini finally have something to hang their hat on.
Illinois played a closely contested game with fourth-ranked Iowa State, leading as late as the 11:33 mark of the second half and down just three with fewer than eight minutes to play. But the Cyclones used a couple late bursts to pull away from the Illini in the game's final stages, sending Illinois to its fourth loss of the young season, 84-73, in the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla.
Illinois led for a good portion of the first half, and it wasn't till a 10-0 Iowa State run that the Cyclones create an eight-point advantage of their own. But that too was erased when the Illini scored the final six points before halftime to make it just a one-point game at the break.
It was a back-and-forth second half, as the Illini continued to hang tough. Illinois got a 58-57 lead on a Jaylon Tate bucket with 11 and a half minutes to play, but from there, Iowa State scored six straight. The lead fluctuated between three and five over the next couple minutes before the Cyclones pulled away from the Illini with another 10-0 run, which made it a 13-point game with four minutes to play. That stretched out to as big as 17 before things were said and done with an 11-point decision.
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Iowa State shot 49.3 percent from the field, but Illinois wasn't too far behind, shooting 46.6 percent. The Cyclones had a 40-30 rebounding advantage and made 12 of their 14 free-throw attempts, while the Illini visited the charity stripe just eight times. Illinois actually held Iowa State to just 6-for-25 shooting from 3-point range, a solid feat for a team that's given up tons of 3-pointers this season.
Malcolm Hill led the Illini with 20 points, hitting four 3s and grabbing five rebounds. Kendrick Nunn followed up his 18-point performance in a win over UAB with 19 points Saturday, also hitting four 3s. Mike Thorne Jr. was also in double figures with 10 points, grabbing seven rebounds. Leron Black had eight points and eight rebounds off the bench.
The Illini wrapped the month of November with an ugly 3-4 start, but their last two games in Florida went better than any had prior. Part of that can certainly be chalked up to getting healthy. Illinois got Nunn, Tate and Black back in the Emerald Coast Classic after various lengths of injury absences.
The Illini next host Notre Dame on Wednesday night as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That will be the first game played in the renovated State Farm Center and the first game in Champaign for Illinois this season.