CHAMPAIGN — Close games have not gone well for Illinois this season. The Illini have lost nine games by single digits, including three losses in overtime and one at the buzzer against Nebraska on Jan. 15.
But in a rematch Sunday afternoon, the Illini got their revenge in a 72-66 victory over the Cornhuskers, powered by Leron Black.
Black poured in a career-high 28 points and snagged seven rebounds to help Illinois outlast Nebraska. He scored 17 points in 12 minutes in the first half, including a stretch in which he made seven consecutive field goals.
“My teammates were finding me in all the right spots,” Black said. “I had a lot of open shots. They were looking for me and getting me the ball.”
There were six ties and nine lead changes during the game, but the deciding basket came from Black. He nailed a turnaround, fadeaway jumper with two minutes left that put the Illini ahead by three and brought the State Farm Center crowd to its feet.
On the Illini’s final two possessions Trent Frazier and Mark Smith knocked down four free throws to secure the win.
Illinois (13-15, 3-12 Big Ten) shot 62 percent from the field and made 7 of 9 from behind the arc to outscore Nebraska 43-36 in the first half. But after the break, the Cornhuskers used a 16-4 run to climb back in it for a five-point lead.
The teams traded baskets the rest of the way, but Black proved to be too much. He knocked down 3 of 5 from behind the arc in his second consecutive 20-point performance.
“Huge night from Leron,” coach Brad Underwood said. “Everyone got to see how (his game) has expanded. He shot a couple off the dribble today, he hit a couple threes. Really pleased with the way he played.”
Frazier and Kipper Nichols were the only other Illini to score in double figures, finishing with 12 points apiece.
Isaac Copeland led the way with 17 points for Nebraska (20-9, 11-5), who lost for the just the second time in its past 10 games.
“We had just kind of gone to sleep (in the first half),” coach Tim Miles. “We hadn’t practiced that great coming in and we played that way.”
Glynn Watson Jr., Nebraska’s third leading scorer, finished with just three points on 1-of-9 shooting. The loss snapped the Cornhuskers six-game winning streak.
Illinois’ slight win should give Underwood’s young squad some confidence moving forward as it prepares to close out the regular season.
Michael Finke missed his third consecutive game with a concussion. The Illinois forward has started in 25 games this season and is the Illini’s fourth leading scorer at 9.6 points per game.
Frazier has scored in double-figures in 16 of Illinois’ last 18 games. He’s averaging 12.3 points this year which is the most by an Illini freshman since Dee Brown during the 2002-03 season.
“You talk about having pride? You talk about feeling good? That’s everything we have to be about,” Underwood said regarding a loose ball scrum in the second half. “That was three, four guys on the floor all fighting to win a game. Didn’t care about a little burn from the floor, didn’t care about getting knocked. Tonight I knew we were in good shape when we were to that point because that is selfless. That was the play of the night in my opinion.”
Nebraska returns home to take on Indiana. The Hoosiers are led by Juwan Morgan, who is ranked eighth in the Big Ten in scoring at 16.6 points per game.
Illinois will hit the road and face Michigan State on Tuesday. The No. 2 Spartans have a 10-game winning streak.