BY BILL LIESSE
SPRINGFIELD — Chuck Ester and Chattanooga had led Illinois all game Saturday, much of it by double digits, and suddenly faced a nine-point deficit with just over six minutes to play.
So the Mocs (3-0) attacked Illinois’ weakness, 3-point defense, by going to their strength, scoring balance. Chattanooga won 81-77 by making five straight 3-pointers from four different players.
Ester made two of the five, and his final stat line (5-of-5 for 12 points, including 2-for-2 on treys) had Illinois coach John Groce tipping his cap in the postgame.
“I don’t think we beat ourselves down stretch with that nine-point lead,” Groce said. “I think they took it.
“If you told me they were going to make five 3s in a row, two by Ester, one by (Duke) Ethridge and one by (Tre’) McLean … I’d say no way. But it happened. That’s the beauty of college basketball. I give those guys credit.”
The long balls were the first of the year for Ester and Ethridge, who was making his season debut. McLean was 1-for-7 coming in to the game.
“Our players were following the game plan,” Groce said.
The fourth-year coach was upset about the deciding 3, by Eric Robertson. The last of senior’s team-high 15 points put Chattanooga up 77-74 with 1:58 to play and the Mocs would not trail again.
“We did make a mistake on leaving their best shooter open in the corner,” Groce said of the Southern Conference’s top 3-point percentage shooter last season.
Before Illinois’ short-lived lead, the story in this temporary home of the Illini was Chattanooga controlling the home team in much the way North Florida did in the season opener.
“They were trying to blow us out from the jump,” said Illinois’ Malcolm Hill, who scored 19 of his 25 after halftime.
Chattanooga produced six first-half steals off its game-long pressure defense, outrebounded Illinois and had a half-dozen players with multiple baskets by intermission. A lead that was as large as 15 at one point was 39-32 at the break.
“Where we were able to build the lead was playing the right way and sharing the ball,” first-year head coach Matt McCall said. “They were playing with confidence, playing with freedom and playing for each other.”
Hill ignited Illinois’ large surge by converting consecutive steals into five points, starting at the 17:17 mark. He later tied it at 55 on a fadeaway jumper, then scored six straight points for Illinois’ largest lead with 6:26 to go.
Ethridge started the Mocs’ counter with two free throws, then his 3 was sandwiched by Ester’s two. McLean followed with the tying trey at 2:52, and Robertson worked free in the left corner a minute later.
“I’m going to give those kids credit,” Groce said. “To make five 3s in a row over a six-possession stretch, your offense has to be near-perfect if the game is close at all.”
Chattanooga: Eight Mocs scored in the game’s first eight minutes. … UTC scored the game’s first 11 points off turnovers but lost that statistic 21-12 as the Mocs coughed it up 19 times to Illinois’ 16.
Illinois: The Illini are 1-3 for the first time since 1965-66 and only the fourth time in 110 seasons. … This was the third of four home games relocated to the state capital for Illinois, which is scheduled to reopen renovated State Farm Center on Dec. 2 vs. Notre Dame. … The school’s winningest coach, Lou Henson (423-224 from 1976-96), was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday. … The Illini have given up an average of 12 3-point makes to their first four opponents.
Chattanooga is at No. 7 Iowa State on Monday. Illinois is host to Chicago State on Monday in Springfield. Both are Emerald Coast Classic games.
The last time Chattanooga beat two power-conference teams was the 1997 NCAA Tournament, when then-Tennessee-Chattanooga upset Georgia and Illinois to make the Sweet 16. The Mocs opened this year with an overtime win at Georgia (92-90) before moving to 2-0 all-time vs. the Illini on Saturday.
Beside being displaced from their normal home in Champaign for the first four games, Illinois is contending with a series of injuries. Graduate-senior Tracy Abrams is out for the season, and a pair of junior guards from Chicago Simeon are still sidelined by hand injuries. Groce said Kendrick Nunn has moved from a hard cast to a soft one on his broken thumb. He hopes to return around the first of the year. Jaylon Tate broke a finger in the season opener and has targeted the annual Braggin’ Rights game vs. Missouri (Dec. 23) as his return date.
“When they get guys back, they’re going to win a lot of games,” McCall said of the Illini.
“People sometimes don’t realize that when a guy is back, he’s not really all the way back,” Groce said of the recently returned Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands, a pair of four-star recruits from the last two incoming classes.