CHAMPAIGN — There has been drama watching Trent Frazier grow into a freshman scoring machine. There’s been heartache watching big leads evaporate and big comebacks fall short.
But quietly and without much fanfare in the middle of this odd Illini basketball season, Leron Black has just gone about his business.
On Sunday, business was very, very good.
Black scored 17 of his career-high 28 points in the first half and continued his season-long trend of making difficult shots look easy as the Illini threw an unexpected curve into Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament push, winning 72-66 at the State Farm Center.
Once again Illinois was faced with a do-or-die moment in this game with the score tied 63-63 and less than three minutes to go.
In past close calls, Illinois had made mental errors, missed free throws or broken down on defense. But Sunday afternoon, playing before a sellout crowd of 15,544 at the State Farm Center, Illinois broke through.
Illinois went to Black on the low block and when he missed, he ripped away his own rebound and scored to give the Illini a 65-63 lead with 2:37 to play.
Nebraska pulled one point closer when Isaac Copeland hit one of two free throws with 2:25 to go.
One again, Illinois turned to Black, the 6-7 junior who has shown an uncanny ability to score over taller defenders or through traffic. This time he hit a difficult baseline jumper with 1:57 to go to put Illinois ahead 67-64.
Each team had two empty possessions before Mark Smith soared for a rebound on Frazier’s missed 3-pointer. The ball went out of bounds and on video review, possession was awarded to Illinois. Nebraska was forced to foul and Frazier made one of two free throws with 25.4 seconds to go to push the margin to 68-64.
Nebraska immediately rushed the ball up the floor and James Palmer Jr. scored on a layup to cut the lead to 68-66 with 19.6 seconds left. And even though he has struggled in some late-game free throw situations, coach Brad Underwood got the ball to Frazier who was quickly fouled with 18.3 seconds to go. Frazier made both free throws and Smith, who had his biggest impact in a Big Ten game this season, added two more to seal the victory.
Black, who made 11 of 18 shots and 3 of 4 from 3-point distance, was the one player Nebraska couldn’t control.
“He’s a highly rated kid out of high school who is just growing into his own,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “It takes time to figure out what works for you and I’m sure Brad has been a good influence on him. Leron was terrific tonight.”
Kipper Nichols and Frazier each added 12 points and Black and Nichols each had seven rebounds. Smith scored eight points, his best offensive output since Jan. 11 against Iowa.
Illinois used hot shooting and good ball movement to blister Nebraska in the first half. Shooting 62 percent, Illinois took a 43-36 lead to the locker room. But the Illini bogged down when Nebraska switched to a zone to open the second half. After Black scored a basket at the 15:57 mark, Illinois went on a five-and-a-half minute scoring drought while Nebraska opened a 52-47 lead.
It was a 3-pointer by Smith that put Illinois back on top, 53-52, and seconds later came a crazy play that Underwood thought was a key to the game.
A loose ball turned into a wild scramble with at least three separate pileups. Bodies were scattered everywhere. The ball kept squirting into the air. And the fact that his entire team got in on the scrum pleased Underwood greatly.
“That was the game,” Underwood said. “That’s everything, everything, everything we have to be about. That wasn’t one guy on the floor. That was three, four, all of them fighting to win the game.
“They didn’t care about a little burn from the floor. They didn’t care about getting knocked. We haven’t seen that often and tonight I knew we were in great shape when we got to that point.”
Copeland led Nebraska (20-9, 11-5) with 17 points, and Dixon native Isaiah Roby added 14. But after scoring 13 in the first half, he had just one free throw after halftime.
Like Underwood, Frazier liked the fight that had the State Farm Center roaring as loud as it’s been this season.
“We’ve been talking about it all week in practice, playing with emotion,” Frazier said. “That one possession, when everyone dove on the ball, that was incredible. If we come out here to fight every night like that, we’ll win.”
Illinois has little time to savor its first victory since Jan. 30. The Illini fly to East Lansing, Mich., today and will line up to face the second-ranked Michigan State Spartans at 6 p.m. Tuesday.