Big Ten

Michael Finke finds shot, lights it up in Illini's Big Ten Tournament win

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Michael Finke finds shot, lights it up in Illini's Big Ten Tournament win

INDIANAPOLIS — Take Michael Finke's team-high 17 points off the board, and Illinois still would've defeated Minnesota by 16 on Wednesday. That's the kind of throttling the Illini delivered to the undermanned Gophers in the first game of this year's Big Ten Tournament.

And while Illinois got contributions from practically everyone — Finke was one of four Illini in double figures, one of three to hit at least a trio of 3-pointers — his performance was the highlight of the day and one of the better moments in a generally disappointing season, considering just how cold the redshirt freshman had been coming in.

“We always tell him keep shooting the ball. I’ve been getting mad at him lately for passing up shots," Malcolm Hill said. "So it was good to see him get it up. I feel even better because it fell for him tonight.”

Finke looked like a surprise contributor this season. After he redshirted last year, he was thrown into the fire with a sizable role thanks to injuries that knocked starting big men Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black out for almost the entirety of the campaign. And he stepped up, production-wise, averaging 11.5 points per game during a 13-game stretch from Nov. 18 through Jan. 3. But in the 15 games since, he averaged 4.3 points per game. Chalk some of that up to an injury — he missed Illinois' triple-overtime win over Rutgers — but it was a deep slump. He was just 6-for-30 from 3-point range in his last 12 games.

[MORE BIG TEN: Yeah it was Gophers, but Illini's best game of season comes at good time]

But that all changed Wednesday. Finke provided the Illini with some offensive fireworks in a game where many others did, too. But Finke's were the biggest. He knocked down five 3-pointers, going 6-for-10 from the field.

Call it an awakening for the Champaign native.

“Obviously it felt good," Finke said. "My teammates plus all the coaches have been telling me to keep shooting. That’s just what I had to keep doing. At practice, I’ve been getting extra shots up. And then it’s just all mental and having confidence in it. So when that first one went in, it felt good.”

Head coach John Groce called Wednesday's win the best his team has played all season. And while Finke's 17 points weren't a season high — he dropped 24 in a non-conference win over Western Carolina on Dec. 5 — it was at the least an equivalent performance in terms of quality to the highest-scoring game of his career.

Groce obviously praised Finke's outing, but he pointed out that despite the slump in offensive production, Finke has been impacting games in other ways.

“Michael took the same shots he’s been taking in practice, and he’s been making a lot of them there. Obviously we know that early in the season and even early in Big Ten play, he made quite a few," Groce said. "I just encouraged him to continue to shoot the ball, his teammates did, our staff has.

"And then understanding that you don’t just put your value in whether you make a shot or not. You can contribute on the offensive backboard, you can contribute by putting your body into plays, which Michael will do. Michael’s pretty tough. I thought he did those things, as well. Obviously the shot numbers show up on the stat sheet, but he’s been doing some of those things for a while. It was good to see the basketball go in for him today. He works at it. We’ve got all kinds of confidence in him, our staff does and his teammates.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

Finke admitted that his slump has been mostly mental. That isn't the most surprising thing to happen to a kid playing his first season of college basketball. But his confidence returned at the right time, with the Illini's season on the line in the conference tournament.

“I think it was more mental than anything," Finke said. "My mechanics weren’t changing, my shot wasn’t changing. I think it was just all mental with it, honestly. People were telling me to shoot. Everyone had confidence in me, and I just had to have confidence in myself.”

The challenge now is keeping that confidence up and remaining a reliable contributor when Illinois takes on Iowa on the second day of the Big Ten Tournament.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.