CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Kendrick Nunn started Illinois' game against Western Carolina Saturday in an unfamiliar spot: on the bench.
He was coming off a bad night Wednesday against Notre Dame, and coach John Groce told him before the game that he would sit while the Illini looked elsewhere for better defense.
But Nunn didn't stay there long, burying a 3-pointer 90 seconds into the game and finishing with a career-high 27 to help Illinois (4-5) survive a sloppy performance against the Catamounts, 80-68.
Freshman Michael Finke almost matched him, adding a career-best 24.
Neither the bad game against the Fighting Irish nor the seat on the bench dented Nunn's confidence, he said.
''Being a scorer, I don't think about things like that, I just keep playing,'' he said.
Illinois coach John Groce said the short-term benching was a ''tough deal'' for the junior guard, but one he handled well.
''That kid doesn't pout, he didn't say anything,'' Groce said. ''His mental toughness is just at another level.''
Western Carolina (3-5) knew Nunn could be dangerous, coach Larry Hunter said.
''But Michael Finke, we weren't quite expecting him to unload on us quite like he did,'' Hunter said.
Nunn was 9 of 14 on the night and 3 of 5 from 3-point range and the 6-foot-10 Finke finished 9 of 13 and 4 of 6 on 3-pointers.
But their teammates were quiet. The rest of the Illini combined for 29 points.
Mike Brown led Western Carolina with 23 points. Elijah Pughsley finished with 15, all on 3-pointers. He was 5 of 10 from behind the arc.
The game was sloppy. Western Carolina turned the ball over 19 times and the Illini 16.
Illinois pulled away late thanks to a defense that grew tougher as the game wore on, Groce said.
''Good teams, when it's 50-50, find a way to impose their will,'' he said. ''Today, for the first time, I thought we did that.''
The game was tied as late as the 7:58 mark in the second half when Pughsley hit a 3-pointer to make the score 59-59.
But Illinois answered with a pair of baskets by Nunn. The second was a powerful dunk that gave Illinois a 63-59 edge with 7:18 left. Western Carolina never got any closer.
And after coming off a loss Wednesday to Notre Dame, Saturday's game was too close for much of the afternoon for Illinois.
Early in the second half, Western Carolina used an 11-0 run to turn what had been a comfortable lead for Illinois into a tie game.
Jaylon Tate fouled Justin Browning with 12:39 to play. Browning sank both free throws, and the State Farm Center grew uncomfortably quiet with the game tied 50-50.
Only a layup from Malcolm Hill ended the run and put the Illini back up by two.
Western Carolina: The Catamounts were 7 of 7 from the free-throw line in the second half and 15 of 18 for the game, but they struggled to attack Illinois inside in the second half Saturday and get to the line. Western Carolina had just four points in the paint in the second half.
Illinois: Illinois' trouble defending the 3-pointer was apparent again Saturday. Notre Dame was 10 of 20 from 3-point range in Illinois' 84-79 loss to the Fighting Irish on Wednesday. The Catamounts, who came into the game hitting just 29.5 percent of their 3-pointers, were 11 of 24 on Saturday for 45.8 percent.
After Illinois' loss to Notre Dame, Hill said he had no explanation for why he wasn't getting many shooting opportunities before the game's final minute. The team's leading scorer, he shot just six times before those final 60 seconds. On Saturday, he was even quieter. Hill went to the locker room 2 for 4 with four points, and spent the first 7:21 of the second half on the bench. But he found his scoring touch late, finishing with 10 points and five rebounds.
Catamounts forward Torrion Brummitt had to be separated from Illinois forward Leron Black by the officials with 2:59 left in the game when Black fouled the forward and fell over him in the lane under the Catamounts' basket. Illinois led 67-59 at the time after the Catamounts had fought back to tie the game.
Black was called for a flagrant foul and Brummitt was called for a technical.
Western Carolina plays at Davidson on Saturday.
Illinois hosts Yale Wednesday.
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