Illinois beats UNLV to end three-game losing streak
By TERRY TOWERY
Illinois (3-7) saw a 14-point lead evaporate late in the game, but iced the win when big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili hit two free throws with 27 seconds left. The 6-foot-9 Bezhanishvili, who finished with nine points, also hit a 3-pointer in the first half.
UNLV (4-4) was led by Joel Ntambwe's 18 points. Cheikh Mbacke Diong scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for the Rebels.
Illinois held UNLV to 34 percent shooting from the field (23 of 68), while shooting 47 percent (28 of 59). Illinois blocked a season-high six shots.
The Illini led 40-34 at the half.
"This is one of those games where you put it in the left-hand column and move the hell on," said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. "That's the first time this year we've had to protect a lead like that going down to the wire. The other two wins were blowouts."
Third-year UNLV coach Marvin Menzies was not available for comment after the game.
After watching the Rebels hit their last five field goals in a row, Illinois stepped up its man defense and stopped them with seconds left. UNLV's Amauri Hardy looked like he was going to take a potential game-winning 3-pointer but instead pulled up and turned the ball over on an errant pass with under 30 seconds left and Illinois clinging to a 75-74 lead. Ntambwe fouled Bezhanishvili with 27 seconds left and the big man from the country of Georgia sank both free throws.
"I probably should have shot the ball," Hardy said after the game. "Anything is better than a turnover."
Samba Kane, a 7-foot center from Senegal, got 16 minutes of playing time for Illinois, scoring eight points. Kane, a true freshman, showed some offensive promise and was a force around the rim during his court time.
But his best moment came when he blocked an inside shot and immediately wagged his finger at the opposing player, reminiscent of former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo.
"Oh, that was big time," Underwood said. "This game is all about enthusiasm and fun and that little moment was fun."
Kane said it wasn't his first wag, nor will it likely be his last. "I did that in high school even," he said. "It felt good."
Early in the second half, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu was fed a long pass and, while being closely guarded by two Rebels, went airborne, switched the ball from his right hand to his left behind his back and gently laid the ball in for a 10-point Illinois lead.
UNLV: The Rebels' offense went to sleep midway through the first half, turning the ball over four times and making no field goals for nearly eight minutes, which allowed Illinois to pad the lead to 15 points.
Illinois: The Illini were back in Champaign for the first time in nearly two weeks, playing its third game in seven days. Illinois was beaten by No. 19 Ohio on Wednesday at the United Center in Chicago.
UNLV: Hosts BYU on Saturday.
Illinois: Hosts East Tennessee State on Saturday.
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Updated December 8, 2018