Maryland strolled into Champaign on Wednesday with a 14-1 record and a No. 11 national ranking. Heck, the Terrapins even led by two points at halftime.
Illinois outscored Maryland 38-29 in the second half to earn a 64-57 victory and notch its first Big Ten win of the season.
“I think we were all motivated as a team to come out and play as hard as we could,” Illinois center Nnanna Egwu said on Ferrall on the Bench. “We knew how great of a team they were. They’re really physical, they play great defense, they’re tough, they’re together – they’re one of the best teams in the country. But we understood that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country. It’s such a good conference. Every game is really different. Every game is really challenging. It provided us a unique way to win games. We knew that it was going to be a good challenge for us.”
And Egwu met it head on. The 6-11 senior from Chicago dominated down low, scoring 11 points, grabbing nine rebounds and swatting four shots – as many as Maryland’s entire team.
Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill, meanwhile, was virtually unstoppable, scoring 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting, including 4-of-7 fro three-point range. He also had seven rebounds and one steal.
“Hill, he’s a special talent,” Egwu said. “He’s young. He’s great. He really played motivated tonight. He took control of the offense. He was really aggressive and really held us down offensively.”
Another sophomore guard, Jaylon Tate, also had a nice game, finishing with 10 points and four assists.
“The one thing with Tate is that he’s always been vocal,” Egwu said. “He always talks. He’s been talking since his freshman year. He came in talking. But the one thing he’s really started to do – and probably why he got the starting role – he has more of a commanding presence on the floor. You know he’s controlling our team. He’s the guy we go to when we need to know what play we’re running, what defense we’re running, and people gravitate toward him. He’s a great leader.”
Maryland shot 9-of-21 from outside the arc (42.9 percent) but just 10-of-31 (32.3 percent) from inside it.
Illinois, which dropped its first two conference games on the road against Michigan and Ohio State, desperately needed to get in the win column on Wednesday. The Illini have two more Big Ten road games upcoming – at Nebraska (8-6) on Jan. 11 and at Northwestern (10-5) on Jan. 14 – before returning home to take on Scott Ferrall’s alma mater, Indiana (11-4), on Jan. 18.
“Every Big Ten game provides its own challenges,” Egwu said. “We just got to prepare the same way we prepare for every game and come out the same way that we came out tonight. We understand it’s a long Big Ten season. We understand it’s good for us to get this victory, but it’s a long season and we got to take each game at a time.”