Two-way effort from Shannon keys Illinois victory

Nov. 18—CHAMPAIGN — Terrence Shannon Jr. spent the offseason knowing he hadn't been the leader he needed to be last season.

The leader the Illinois men's basketball team needed him to be.

Asserting himself in that way hasn't come naturally, but Shannon understands that's who he has to be. That it's who he has to be for the 23rd-ranked Illini. So Shannon went into the locker room at halftime of Friday night's game against Valparaiso knowing exactly what he had to say with his team down seven points.

"Right when we got in I said I've got 19," Shannon said.

That would be Valparaiso guard Isaiah Stafford, who had 23 first-half points. As in just more than half of the Beacons' scoring to that point.

Illinois' halftime conversation wasn't a lengthy one. Not that the Illini didn't have plenty of ground to cover. Giving up 45 points in 20 minutes to Valparaiso certainly wasn't part of the game plan. Especially since the Beacons hadn't scored more than 64 points against a Division I opponent yet this season.

Still haven't, actually, after Illinois got its act together in the second half. Shannon matched his defensive effort against Stafford with an offensive takeover and ultimately propelled the Illini to an 87-64 victory in front of a State Farm Center crowd of 14,894 that, for 25 minutes at least, had to be wondering what exactly was happening.

"We all talked," Shannon said about Illinois' player-led halftime. "Everybody had a say so. Out of everything, it was our effort and our defensive intensity. Once we picked that up, we know we're one of the best defensive teams in the country, and we showed that in the second half."

Shannon's turn to face-guarding Stafford was reminiscent of the defensive effort the Illinois guard put up in last Friday night's win against Oakland when he bottled up the Golden Grizzlies' Jack Gohlke. Stafford scored just four points in the second half with Shannon doing the same thing.

"Like Coach Brad tells me, I'm the best two-way player in the country," Shannon said. "My teammates believe I can stop whoever. They put me on him in the second half, and his water was cut off."

What Shannon did — doubling as Illinois' leading scorer with 22 points and its defensive stopper — is simply what Illinois coach Brad Underwood expects. He doesn't consider it asking too much for Shannon to shoulder that kind of responsibility.

"In high school basketball, guys who score a lot are usually the team's worst defender," Underwood said. "That doesn't work in college. TJ, defensively, did what a veteran should do. That's on him to make sure we do that at the start."

Illinois (3-1) led ever so briefly against Valparaiso in the first half at 2-1 with 18 minutes, 43 seconds remaining before halftime. Valparaiso (2-2) had the requisite energy and effort from the opening tip that the Illini simply didn't match. A lead that grew to 10 on two occasions and sat at seven at halftime for the Beacons was the result.

"The game is so fickle," Underwood said. "When you don't show up and play it in competition the right way with the energy and mental approach, it gets to be a real struggle. We heard them in the locker room before the game. They were tearing it up. They came out and just punched us.

"We were really flat with our switches. We weren't talking. There was no energy and no life, which was disappointing because we had two really good days of practice."

Underwood went deep in his rotation in the first half. Partly because of foul trouble for Shannon, Ty Rodgers, Dain Dainja and Amani Hansberry and partly because he was looking for "anybody that had a flicker of light — not just a spark."

It just took until the second half to find it. Illinois outscored Valparaiso by 30 in the second half, with Shannon scoring 15 of his 22 points by remembering how effective he is in transition and when he attacks the basket. The Beacons didn't help themselves by shooting 20 percent from the field and missing all eight of their three-pointers.

"They were playing physical, man," Valparaiso coach Roger Powell Jr. said. "I think we ran out of gas. They stated really doing a good job of face guarding Isaiah. Then they got out in transition, and we didn't do a good job of covering them. We were kind of playing on our heels."