Illinois rallies to beat North Dakota State 80-74
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) Just as important as seeing Illinois rally for an 80-74 victory over North Dakota State, Illinois senior center Mike Thorne Jr. just wanted to see what's going on outside.
''I'll be happy to just get some fresh air,'' Thorne said. ''I don't even know if it's hot or cold.''
Sequestered between the team hotel and the Prairie Capital Convention Center, the Illini did nothing but learn about basketball and themselves. They found an offensive threat in Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte who scored 21 points, and toughened on defense in the second half to rally from a 14-point deficit.
''The first thing that stood out to me was the grit required by the team,'' Illinois coach John Groce said. ''This wasn't an easy win. On Friday, we didn't play as well we we'd like. We learned a lot. I don't think these guys left the hotel.''
After leading for only 17 seconds in the first half and falling behind by 14 points in both halves, the Illini managed a weekend split against strong midmajor programs. Illinois (1-1) lost to North Florida Friday.
''I thought in my time at Illinois, it's one of the top five in my mind in gutsy performances by our team,'' Groce said. ''Our man defense in the second half really got going.''
While Thorne scored 13 points in the second half, he found help from Illini freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who sparked Illinois on a 9-0 run to get the Illini back into the game early in the second half. Coleman-Lands scored 12 of his 15 points after halftime.
After its defense was unable to slow the Bison in the first half, Illinois gave up another 3-pointer to start the second half and trail 42-28.
Coleman-Lands scored eight points, sinking two 3-pointers and scoring on a drive in the key rally to trim the deficit to 42-37 with 15:50 left. He had four steals in the second half to lead the Illini defense on the perimeter, a boost in confidence for a player who sat out during the summer and preseason practice because of a lower leg injury.
''He was active,'' Groce said. ''His feet were active. His hands were active. He doesn't know what he's doing yet. He's only been practicing for 10 days. He's smart, but it's hard to pick up things in 10 days.''
Illinois never trailed again after Thorne's 3-point play for a 60-57 lead with 5:39 left. It was Illinois' first lead since the opening basket.
Paul Miller scored 19 points to lead North Dakota State (1-1).
''You can tell that's a team with their backs against the wall a little bit,'' North Dakota State coach David Richman said. ''They played like it. They fought hard the second half. Give credit to them. They made us turn it over into too many mistakes.''
North Dakota State lost 10 turnovers in the second half.
After allowing 93 points in a loss Friday, Illinois struggled defensively in the first half, when North Dakota State was 7 of 13 from the 3-point line. Following the early 3-pointer by North Dakota State to start the second half, the Illini allowed 17 points over the next 15 minutes.
Illinois: While battling injuries, Illinois went with two transfers in the starting lineup. Guard Khalid Lewis is a fifth-year senior who played last season at La Salle. He began his career at Delaware. Forward Alex Austin is a transfer from Eastern Illinois. … Forward Leron Black played his first minutes after missing the season opener while recovering from knee surgery.
North Dakota State: If the Bison want to make a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, they must prepare for a showdown with South Dakota State. In the Summit League preseason poll, North Dakota State was ranked second behind conference favorite South Dakota State.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Groce on Illini forward Alex Austin, a transfer from Eastern Illinois: ''He doesn't try to do things to get you beat. Tonight, we needed him to get some stops. Defensively, he made an impact on the game.''
Illinois plays at Providence Wednesday in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.
North Dakota State hosts Valley City State Wednesday.