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.
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.”
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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.