BY JOE REEDY
NICEVILLE, Fla. — Illinois coach John Groce was short-handed for the first five games as many of his key players were out with injuries.
Buoyed by the return of three players to the lineup on Friday night, the Illini had one of their best games of the season in a 72-58 win over UAB in the semifinals of the Emerald Coast Classic.
“In most cases our guys have been able to come back earlier than what has predicted,” Groce said. “We really had a lot of depth tonight and everyone was able to make a contribution.”
Kendrick Nunn made his season debut and had a game-high 18 points. Nunn, who was one of four players to score in double figures, had thumb surgery last month to repair a ligament.
“I was working out a couple days prior to this game and felt good about things,” Nunn said. “I’ve got to get my conditioning up a little more. I felt winded in the first half but felt better as the game went along.”
Leron Black, who had played in three of the first five games but has been dealing with knee soreness after having surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus, added 12 points.
Jaylon Tate scored 3 points after missing the past four games due to an open dislocation on the pinkie finger of his shooting hand.
The one area where Groce thought the three returnees had the biggest impact was on defensive. The Illini’s opponents had made 46.2 percent of their shots from the field coming into the game, but UAB was just 19 of 49 (39 percent).
Illinois (3-3) led 28-23 at halftime but took control with a 14-3 run to start the second half. Malcolm Hill had six of his 12 points during the run.
Maverick Morgan also scored 12 points for the Illini, who will face fourth-ranked Iowa State in Saturday’s championship game.
Chris Cokley had 13 points and six rebounds, and Robert Brown added 13 points for the Blazers (3-2).
UAB: The Blazers lead Conference USA in blocked shots, averaging 6.4 per game. William Lee had three blocks on Friday night and has 14 for the season.
Illinois: The Illini’s first seven games are being played away from the State Farm Center, which is undergoing renovations. During November, Illinois has traveled 3,926 miles and spent 12 nights in hotels.
Friday’s win was the 150th of Groce’s career. Groce is 65-45 in his fourth season at Illinois and was 85-56 in four years at Ohio.
After going 11 of 30 from the field in the first half, Illinois made 68.2 percent of its shots in the second half (15 of 22). … Mike Thorne Jr. had six of his eight points from the foul line and led the Illini in rebounding with eight. … Illinois had a 28-18 advantage in points scored in the paint.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Any time you play a ranked team, the rankings mean so much. It’s going to be really exciting to play a team like that. We’re going to come in and try to do the same thing we always do,” — Morgan on facing Iowa State on Saturday.
UAB: Will face Virginia Tech in Saturday’s third-place game.
Illinois: Will face No. 4 Iowa State in Saturday’s championship game.