CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois coach Bruce Weber has sought meaningful minutes for his mostly inexperienced bench, and he finally got his wish in Sunday’s 90-43 win over Chicago State.
Illinois (6-0) jumped to a 13-3 lead, and a 17-4 run at the end of the first half pushed the Illini’s advantage to 44-19 at the break.
From there the starters mostly watched, and the bench finished with 48 points. All 12 available scholarship players tallied points and recorded double-digit minutes of playing time.
“Hopefully they got some confidence,” Weber said of his bench. “The one thing that they do is bring energy. I have to use that energy, and they have to be happy with that.”
Close wins against Richmond and Illinois State in the past week had Weber relying on a small rotation of veteran players, but Sunday’s large leads had Weber dipping into his bench early.
“It’s always good to get all the guys in the game,” said guard D.J. Richardson, who had 11 points. “It gives us the energy boost and gives the guys who play a lot some rest. That’ll be a strength for us this season.”
Chicago State (0-6) was led by forward Jeremy Robinson’s 14 points and six rebounds in its lowest scoring effort of the season.
“Our hope is that losses like this don’t tear up our confidence the whole way,” Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy said. “We need to go back to the drawing board tomorrow.”
Robinson, a junior-college transfer, has emerged as the Cougars’ top player.
“He is our leader,” Dildy said. “Everything starts and ends with Jeremy.”
Illinois forward Tyler Griffey and guard Sam Maniscalco helped push the early lead with eight points apiece before halftime, allowing several freshmen to get key minutes.
Myke Henry, a freshman forward, returned after being sidelined for two weeks with an ankle injury to lead all Illini scorers with 14 points. He scored his first basket within seconds of coming off the bench, sinking a baseline jumper from just inside the 3-point arc.
“He’s a kid that has no fear,” Weber said. “We know he can score. The big thing is that he hasn’t practiced. He has a natural ability to score, it’s an amazing knack.”
Freshman center Nnanna Egwu was active in his 14 minutes of play off the bench, scoring a career-high 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Henry called the game “a boost in confidence” for him and his fellow first-year players.
“It was hard because we came in here thinking we were in shape,” Henry said. “And then we had to work hard to get in shape, and now once we’ve started to get the feel of things, we have to work to get better and better.”
The Illini had the lopsided win despite the continued struggles of guard Brandon Paul. The junior, who Weber has called the team’s best player, was held without a field goal in 10 minutes of play, finishing with two points. Paul is averaging 7.8 points per game while shooting 32 percent from the field.
“I think Brandon thought it was his time, and that it would come easy,” Weber said. “It hasn’t come easy, and I think he’s lost some confidence. We need him, there’s no doubt. Until he picks it up, we have people (who can play), which is positive.”
Illinois had success offensively against Chicago State’s zone defense with a heavy dose of ball movement in the perimeter. Point guards Tracy Abrams and Crandall Head combined for 11 assists, while Richardson had five.
“Getting 90 points against a zone, that’s a success,” Richardson said. “That’s what we’ll have to do against better teams.”
The 47-point margin is the Illini’s largest since an 81-34 win over Savannah State on Nov. 21, 2006. Sunday’s game was Illinois’ best shooting performance of the season (57 percent), and the Illini scored 28 points off of 22 forced turnovers.
The competition picks up in the coming week for Illinois, with a game at Maryland on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, then hosting No. 19 Gonzaga on Saturday.
“It’s a positive day for our guys,” Weber said. “Obviously, the competition gets much tougher.”
Chicago State continues a three-game road swing through the state, visiting Illinois State on Wednesday.
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