CHAMPAIGN — The Fighting Illini men’s basketball team overcame illness and injuries to beat Notre Dame 82-72 Monday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at State Farm Center in Champaign.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood detailed some of his team’s ailments after the game.
“I had not seen Jacob Grandison since we got home from Kansas City. He has been in bed. I had not seen him until he walked in today (Monday) for shootaround,” Underwood said.
“Trent Frazier has not practiced, had no idea that he was going to play. Benjamin Verdonk was sick. Austin (Hutcherson) was out, throwing up.”
Frazier played 32 minutes off the bench Monday night, finishing with seven points and six assists. He returned to action after suffering a knee injury in Kansas City last week. Frazier said it was necessary for him to put mind over matter because his team was so shorthanded.
“If you tell yourself it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “Obviously, I was a little timid sometimes, you know, walking, extending my leg. We’ve got a lot of guys out, so I knew I couldn’t miss this game.”
Freshman RJ Melendez started Frazier’s his place, and gave the team an early lift with two three-pointers. Da’Monte Williams started at point guard because Andre Curbelo continues to suffer from neurological problems from a concussion earlier in the season. Underwood said Curbelo “progresses” in a “day by day” manner, but said nothing further about his Puerto Rican star’s prognosis or diagnosis.
Curbelo attended the game in street clothes, and sat at the end of the bench. Junior forward/center Benjamin Verdonk dressed in uniform, but did not play, and also sat at the end of the bench. Swingman Austin Hutcherson stayed at home. Graduate student Jacob Grandison, bedridden for Friday’s game against Texas-Rio Grande Valley, returned against Notre Dame and connected on 3-of-4 three-pointers, grabbed four rebounds and dished out four assists in 18 minutes.
Underwood reserved special praise for Williams, whom the players regard as the team’s leader.
“Da’Monte Williams, I couldn’t start (him) in the second half because he was in the toilet throwing up, and he played the entire night sick,” Underwood said, “and I cannot say enough about Da’Monte Williams. He is the adhesive that has been holding us together.”
The team gets a flu shot every year, and this year received their vaccinations Sept. 20. Nevertheless, a virus of some sort has ravaged the team, and much of the university’s student body, in recent weeks. Few Illini have been unaffected. Even Monday’s leading scorer, Kofi Cockburn, wasn’t feeling his best, according to Underwood. Cockburn led all scorers with 28 points. He also grabbed a game-high 8 rebounds, and assisted teammates on two further baskets.
Alfonso Plummer added 21 points for the Illini, despite converting only 3-11 shots from three-point range arc, and shooting 5-15 overall. For the second consecutive game, Plummer made 8-8 from the free-throw line.
Notre Dame got 24 points from reserve guard Blake Wesley. Starters Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski added 15 and 13 points respectively for the Irish, who dropped to 3-3 on the season with Monday’s loss.
The Illini improved to 5-2 on the year. They have today off. Underwood said he hoped they would all sleep in, and use the day to focus on academics. Their next game is Friday night, the Big Ten opener against Rutgers. The game tips at 6 pm central and will be televised on ESPN2.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.