By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
November 30. 2021
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Simply imagine, just for a few minutes, being Illinois head coach Brad Underwood throughout the entire Monday.
During the afternoon shootaround, the fifth-year head coach didn’t have Trent Frazier active, hadn’t seen Jacob Grandison for several days, was told Austin Hutcherson was out and still vomiting from a severe flu bug and Andre Curbelo still wasn’t cleared with let’s call it an ongoing head and neck injury. And in a few hours, it’s not like the Illini would be staring across from the Little Sisters of the Poor. No, in a few hours the schedule said the next opponent was the University of Notre Dame on national television.
At this point of the shootaround, Underwood made up his mind to reward the work and effort of freshman wing RJ Melendez with his first career start. And not long after coming to this conclusion, the 6-foot-7 forward from Puerto Rico promptly rolled his ankle to the point that the Illini head coach said “at the time, he thought he might have to have it amputated”. Because, based on the injury history of this 2021-22 Illinois basketball team, of course he did.
So, after likely coming to grips with the realization that his program was going to have to likely try to win a 40-minute basketball game against a power conference opponent without three projected starters and two key reserves, Frazier walked into State Farm Center a few hours before tip on Monday night with a declaration.
“He literally walked into the coach’s locker room and said ‘Coach I’m good for 35 (minutes) tonight if you need me,” Underwood said. “Man, don’t you love that as a coach? That makes your heart feel pretty good when you have a guy like that ready to line it up and go.”
Frazier, while wearing his massive right shoulder brace and a pair of giant knee pads protecting his growing list of injuries from this first month of the 2021-22 season, wasn’t far off his prediction. The fifth-year senior played 32 minutes with seven points, six assists and being a huge part of why Notre Dame perimeter shooters couldn’t find open looks from three-point range in the second half.
“If you tell yourself it don’t hurt then it don’t hurt,” Frazier said. “Coach told us before this game that the most important medicine (or) drugs in the world is adrenaline. When you don’t think about and you get going then it don’t hurt.”
After having missed every practice, shootaround and team meeting since the day after Illini landed its team plane at Willard Airport following the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City on the late evening of Nov. 23, Grandison arrived still vastly dehydrated and feeling the flu effects but able to contribute. At the final buzzer, Grandison came off the bench to nail a trio of three-pointers, collect four rebounds and dish out four assists in an 18-minute effort.
Melendez’s ankle was thankfully able to be saved from being severed from his near 19-year-old body and Underwood then knew he had another decision to make.
“[Illinois assistant athletic director for basketball] Joey Biggs asked me before the game at the 44-minute mark [of warmups] and I said ‘I don’t know yet’. That’s a really bad feeling for a ball coach,” said Underwood.
By halftime of what would eventually become Illinois’ 82-72 victory over the Fighting Irish inside an announced capacity crowd of 14,907, Da’Monte Williams had his head in a toilet vomiting violently with flu-like symptoms. The fifth-year senior didn’t start the second half but checked in after just one minute and 31 seconds of inactivity and never again left the playing floor. The 23-year-old from Peoria finished with four points, six rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers in 35 minutes of action where he played every position but center.
“He played the entire night sick,” Underwood said. “I cannot say enough about Da’Monte Williams. He is the adhesive that has been holding us together. He has played every position. He has been in every practice. He is tougher than hell. And has done anything that it takes for us to win. He’s not going to let anything like a little flu bug stop him.”
Preseason All-American Kofi Cockburn was dealing with congestion and breathing issues from a persistent cold he’s obtained over the last few days. Try convincing Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey that Cockburn wasn’t 100 percent healthy because after 28 points and eight rebounds in 32 minutes there’s little chance he’ll believe you.
“There’s nothing like that in college basketball. He’s the only guy like that,” said Brey.
In a Division I head coaching career that begins his ninth season, Underwood has won three NCAA Tournament games, three conference titles, four conference tournament titles and seen his program get to No. 2 in the rankings. The 57-year-old called the win over Notre Dame, which is his first after two previous last-second defeats to Brey, as “probably one of the five to 10 best wins I’ve ever been a part of”. All of this comes less than 24 hours after Underwood referred to the way his team played on Friday night as “soft”.
“This group took a huge step tonight in being connected,” Underwood said. We beat a veteran, very good Notre Dame team today with a lot of adversity and I hope this is something we can wrap our arms around and build.”
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