Busting Brackets

Illinois Basketball: Jayden Epps emerges in win over Texas in Jimmy V Classic

Nov 20, 2022; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) looks to pass the ball against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first half at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2022; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) looks to pass the ball against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first half at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports /

Illinois Basketball gets its biggest win of the early season over No. 2 Texas. Here are some takeaways from the Fighting Illini victory.

Illinois Basketball bounced back from their tough loss in the Big Ten opener against Maryland with a tough, hard-fought comeback victory against second-ranked Texas. There’s a lot that makes this win remarkable for Illinois but what is most important here is not just THAT they pulled off the upset against Texas but HOW they pulled it off.

It was off-script. It certainly wasn’t the way they drew it up. But it was a grinding win that mentally tough teams win throughout the year. Look, playing Texas sucks. It’s one of the least appealing chores in the sport. They harass you defensively. Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter are all but guaranteed to hit tough shots in crucial moments each time you play them. Dillon Mitchell jumps out of the gym and they bring great talent off the bench. There is a reason they are the second-ranked team in college basketball and the second-ranked team in KenPom. They pass the eye test and the metrics.

But Illinois aced the test on Tuesday night. Texas hit them in the mouth in the first half and by the time 30 game minutes were played, they had 17 turnovers. But Illinois turned it on and found contributors to help them pull out a win to display their developed toughness. Here are more takeaways from the big win for a Big Ten favorite.

Terrence Shannon comes alive in overtime

Starting guard Terrence Shannon was invisible for the 40 minutes of regulation. The veteran wing scorer (and former Chris Beard recruit) was held to only four points in regulation and was well on his way to having his worst game in an Illinois uniform and one of his worst as a college basketball player.

But then, overtime happened. He started the extra frame with a smooth pull-up mid-range jumper and followed it up with a three-point jumper off the feed from Coleman Hawkins. Shannon went on the score 12 points in overtime and seemingly forgot about all of his struggles through 40 minutes. Shannon was electric and reliable in an overtime period against a team that wore him down all night. In a war of attrition, Shannon unlocked infinite ammo and closed things out when his team needed it.

When coming to Illinois from Texas Tech, that’s what he brought. He was oftentimes relied upon to be the closer at TTU and when he transferred, was going to be asked to bring that same element to the offense. He did it in their big win over UCLA with a barrage of threes, but what he did against Texas might be more difficult considering he still put away an elite defense without it having the be “his night”.

Matthew Mayer and Jayden Epps step up

With Shannon having a down night, Illinois needed a spark somewhere else. They got it from Mayer and Epps.

In the first half, Texas ramped up defensive pressure and made life hell for the Illini. That pressure led to only three first-half assists and a whopping 11 turnovers. The Illini needed someone to save them from facing a mammoth first-half deficit and that’s where Mayer came in. The dude couldn’t miss. He scored 15 of their 37 points and made all six of his shots from the field (three of those were threes). His impact was limited in the second half due to foul trouble but that still didn’t keep him from dropping 21 points on a blistering 8-10 shooting performance.

Epps came off the bench and provided a massive spark for this Illinois bunch. Freshman point guard Skyy Clark struggled through most of the game which limited him to 24 game minutes. It was a classic case of a true freshman struggling against tenacious defenders but Epps relieved him well and was able to score 11 points and dish out three assists. What made Epps really valuable, was his ability to still generate offense by getting to the line. He was able to attempt eight free throws in his 31 minutes of play and lead the team in attempts. When playing against a defense like that, sometimes the best spark can come from getting to the line and making freebies.

Epps proved himself not only to his team but to coach Brad Underwood, who played him down the stretch in regulation and all of overtime instead of Clark. Epps earned crunch time minutes and elevated levels of trust from his head coach which can bode well for him later in the season.

Coming into the game, Mayer averaged only five points per game but scored 21 in this win. Epps had a reserve role. Both players stepped up when their team needed it on a night where Hawkins and Shannon struggled in regulation against one of the best defenses in college basketball.

Illinois pulled out a win when things seemed bleak

My favorite aspect of this win for Illinois was their ability to come back and erase a deficit against an elite defense. Texas had them down ten points with eight minutes left. Through 32 minutes of play, Illinois only recorded 46 points and it felt like all the defensive pressure from Texas took the ultimate toll. But in the final eight minutes, they scored 22 points and snuck into overtime.

Once the extra frame started, you could feel things change for Texas. It was an eerie feeling that many in sports feel as a missed opportunity. A feeling that forces many teams to play stiff. Illinois was loose in overtime, Texas was not.

Overtime was the Terrence Shannon Show as, as I mentioned, he scored 12 of Illinois’ 17 overtime points to seal the deal. Not many teams are going to score over a point per possession against this Texas defense. Illinois did. Not many teams will erase double-digit deficits in eight minutes against this Texas team. Illinois did. And quite frankly, not many teams will actually beat this Texas team. Illinois did.

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This was as mentally tough a W as any team has clawed out this season (so far). After such a tough road loss in a conference opener, Illinois bounced back and won a game against an elite opponent where their secondary cast had to lead them out of their struggles. That’s a really good sign for them moving forward.