It hasn't been a good season for Illinois, and there's little debate that they have been one of the least-impressive teams in the Big Ten. But a meeting with Rutgers typically soothes all ills.
It even seemed to make Malcolm Hill's injured hamstring better, the junior scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as the Illini cruised past the Scarlet Knights, 82-66, on Tuesday night in Champaign.
An early 13-0 Illinois run was all that was needed to establish that this meeting would go little like the first, which was a sweat-it-out, three-overtime win for the Illini in New Jersey. But this time around, Illinois shot 58.6 percent from the field in the first half, outscoring the visitors, 47-25. The Illini were 6-for-11 from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes. Yes, an early nine-point lead — built by that 13-0 run — was whittled down to two, but Rutgers followed by going scoreless for nearly six minutes and made just one basket over a seven-and-a-half-minute stretch. The Illini outscored the Knights, 29-9, over about the final 12 minutes of the first half.
The whopping advantage at the half made for little drama over the final 20 minutes. Rutgers shot much better and Illinois much worse after halftime, the Knights shooting 53.6 percent and the Illini just 33.3 percent. But the huge margin and plenty more points from Hill, Maverick Morgan and Kendrick Nunn meant the lead was safe till the end, it never slipping into single digits during the second half.
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Illinois impressed at the free-throw line, going 19-for-23 compared to Rutgers going 11-for-18. The Illini also scored 21 points off 16 Knights turnovers.
Hill's 22-point, 10-rebound night made for his sixth double-double of the season and marked the third time in the last four games he's hauled in double-digit rebounds. Morgan finished with 17 points, his second-highest scoring output of the season. He's averaging 14.8 points per game over his past four games. Nunn finished with 16, hitting four 3s, and Jalen Coleman-Lands had nine points on three made 3s.
Rutgers played without freshman Corey Sanders, its leading scorer, who was suspended for violating team rules. The Knights still had four players score in double figures: Jonathan Laurent had a team-high 18 points, Bishop Daniels and Mike Williams each scored 15 points, and D.J. Foreman scored 11 points.
The win bumped the Illini to 12-14 overall and 4-9 in Big Ten play. Next up is a Sunday trip to take on Wisconsin.
The loss dropped the Knights to 6-20 overall and 0-13 in the conference. Next up is a Saturday game against Penn State.