CHAMPAIGN.-- If there were any doubt that Illinois should be a No. 2 seed in the National Invitational Tournament, the Illini dispelled them Tuesday night.
The Fighting Illini got off to a low start but overcame the speed to dominate Valparaiso 82-57. Illinois will move on to face the winner of Utah versus Boise State.
If Illinois and Illinois State win their first two games of the NIT, the Illini and Redbirds would collide on March 21 or 22 at Redbird Arena.
After firing head coach, John Groce, Saturday, Illinois put assistant coach Jamall Walker as interim head coach. The fact Illinois was lacking a head coach did not seem to have a negative effect on the team.
“It’s been a strange 72 hours for our team and our families,” Walker said. “I’m really proud of these guys. They showed resiliency and the fight they always have in them. These guys have been through a lot as a team and as individuals.”
Sophomore Mike Finke was out with a “day-to-day” lower body injury, which allowed the bench to get more playing time. The bench combined for 27 points for Illinois.
For the first time in his Valparaiso career, Shane Hammink was shut down in his 19 minutes of play. The senior guard averages 15.5 points per game.
Illinois senior guard Malcolm Hill carried the team with 25 points, grabbed three rebounds and had no turnovers in 27 minutes. He also reached a personal milestone of 1,800 points in his career.
“It’s pretty cool, especially because I’ve been through a lot personally,” Hill said. “Walker will be the first to tell you that I walked into his office and asked if I could redshirt because I didn’t think I’d be good enough to play.”
Valparaiso’s Tevonn Walker led the team in scoring with 25 points in addition to nabbing eight rebounds and two steals.
“Tevonn Walker was the best player on that court,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “I like Malcolm Hill a lot, but Tevonn Walker was the best player on the court… I’m glad he’s on my team.
Although both teams knew that losing this game would end its season, the Illini were more focused on the attitude of the players.
“The biggest thing we said coming into this was game was just play hard and have fun,” Hill said. “We don’t want to make our next game our last game. So, no pressure. Just have fun with it.”
The Illini will advance to play the winner of Boise State versus Utah at a time and date between March 16-21 that will be announced at a later date.