CHAMPAIGN — Illinois basketball players didn’t care how it happened, all they were concerned with was the victory.
And while it took overtime, senior guard Andres Feliz scored seven of team-high 23 points in the extra session as the Fighting Illini opened the year with a 78-70 triumph over the Nicholls State Colonels.
So, it turned into a feliz victoria, which means happy victory in english.
“I think this sets the tone for our season,’’ said Feliz, a native of the Dominican Republic. “I think this will prepare us going forward. We will have tough game every night in the Big Ten.’’
In addition to his scoring, Feliz also pulled down 11 rebounds giving him a double-double in the season opener.
“I call him a little pit but,’’ said Illinois junior guard Trent Frazier. He’s tough. He is one of the guys that we trust. He is unselfish and he gets after it. He did a great job rebounding, helping those big guys out.’’
Feliz came up with one of the toughest rebounds in the game right after he hit a short floater in the lane to give Illinois a 70-68 lead. He followed that with a free throw and another driving basket that seemingly sealed the victory for Illinois.
While the senior guard came up big in the extra session, it was Frazier who made the play at the end of the regulation that allowed the game to get into overtime.
Frazier, who was 0-for-9 from the field and 0-for-6 from 3-point range, forced Nicholls State guard Kevin Johnson into a turnover with just 2 seconds left in regulation with the game tied 66-66.
“Trent handle the last play correctly,’’ said Illinois Brad Underwood. “We knew what play they were going to run with the double stagger. He fought over the top of it, so that means our two bigs didn’t have switch or support.
“Than he did a great job of walling him up.’’
According to Frazier, that’s what he is supposed to do.
“When the ball is not going, I can’t let that bother me,’’ he said. “That is just bad energy. I had to find other ways to help my team win.’’
That was how the Illini (1-0) played the entire first half as they held the Colonels to just 19 points on 8-of-27 shooting.
Nicholls State (0-1) had multiple scoring droughts, including a six-minute stretch midway through the first half that allowed Illinois to build a 24-12 advantage with a 9-0 run.
“We were really, really good defensively in the first half,’’ Underwood said. “I think that’s the team that we are trying to become.’’
But, that defensive effort was nowhere to be found in the game’s final 13 minutes and 22 seconds.
The Colonels scored on 17 of its final 25 possessions, which included a 16-0 run that allowed Nicholls State to turn a 64-50 deficit into a 66-64 lead with 1:27 left.
“We weren’t engaged as much defensively and they were making shots,’’ said Illinois sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. “Playing on the road, we let them get hot and they had nothing to lose.’’
Illinois was able to force overtime as Frazier knocked down a pair of free throws with 29.8 seconds left and then made the defensive play.
“Winners win,’’ said Underwood about the play of his junior guard.
And while this game might concern members of Illini Nation, the players point out it that it’s a victory.
“Why would we be disappointed? We got the win, that’s all that matters,’’ said Dosunmu, who had 21 points in the contest. “We don’t come out here and try to win by 20, 25 or 30. We play for ourselves to get the win.
“It’s not about the names on the front of the jerseys, they are Division I basketball players. There is talent everywhere, Nicholls State showed that. At the end of the day, we got the win.’’
Underwood appreciated his players positive outlook, but admitted it’s his job to point out their negatives.
“I was really disappointed. I was really disappointed that we didn’t get on the floor for loose balls. We got completely outplayed,’’ he said. “Nicholls State deserves all the credit for that.
“I’m ecstatic with the win, but I always strive for the perfect game. I challenge myself as a coach to make sure that my team doesn’t get outplayed or outcoached. I have to do a better job.’’
Up next for Illinois is a very difficult weekend in Arizona with a game on Friday against Grand Canyon University and then a contest on Sunday against nationally-rated Arizona.