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Illinois outlasts Northern Kentucky in 79-64 battle

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ Illinois needed a career-high performance from Malcolm Hill to outlast Northern Kentucky 79-64 on Sunday night.

The senior scored a career-high 40 points and brought down 12 rebounds to help Illinois (2-0) fight through a first half where the Illini trailed 33-31 at halftime and struggled to hold off the Norse off until the end.

“It was something I was working on over the summer,” Hill said. “This is just one of the games that showed a lot of the hard work and dedication that I’ve put into my 3-point shot.”

The Illini shot 44 percent from the field but were 20-30 from the free-throw line.

Michael Finke also scored in double figures, adding 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Illini.

Illinois coach John Groce credited his veteran team for te “polite” conversation at halftime to change the team’s energy and focus.

“Our seniors responded big time in the second half,” he said. “I thought we came out with a lot more aggressiveness, a lot more attacking mentality.”

Lavone Holland II led Northern Kentucky (1-1) with 13 points, which kept the Norse in the game until the final eight minutes.

The Norse held a 43-32 rebound advantage despite Northern Kentucky’s tallest players being 6-foot-7.

Northern Kentucky was sloppy with the ball for most of the game, committing 18 turnovers that led to 21 Illinois points.

“Our youth showed when things went bad and I thought their veteran leadership showed with their run,” Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen said.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini will have a lot to work on despite the win. They will have a few games to work out the kinks before tougher opponents appear on the schedule.

Northern Kentucky: The Norse can hold their heads up despite the loss. Northern Kentucky competed well throughout the game against a Big Ten opponent.

TURNING POINT

Illinois and Northern Kentucky exchanged baskets and the lead for much of the start of the second half until Hill took over. He scored 29 points in the half and helped put the game away.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Tracy Abrams got the State Farm Center crowd excited when he came from behind to block a Drew McDonald fast break layup.

UP NEXT

Illinois will play its third game in five nights when the Illini host McKendree on Tuesday night.

Northern Kentucky will try to rebound after its first loss of the season on Friday when the Norse play Austin Peay in the Tarkett Sports Classic in Oxford, Ohio.