CHAMPAIGN — Matthew Mayer scored 21 points and added seven rebounds to help No. 18 Illinois overcome Alabama A&M’s comeback attempt for a 68-47 win Saturday.
Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 18 and Mayer went 7 of 8 and scored 15 points in the second half to help Illinois (8-3) close out the win.
Garrett Hicks scored 13 points and Messiah Thompson added 12 for the Bulldogs (3-7).
Olisa Blaise Akonobi’s dunk highlighted a 16-0 run after halftime as the Bulldogs shaved their deficit to three and held the Illini to a 1-of-18 shooting stretch over about 13 minutes.
Thompson scored seven straight for the Bulldogs before Dailin Smith added a pair of free throws to cut it to a 38-37 Illinois lead with 10:54 to play.
“They look at us on the schedule and that’s a game, Big Ten team, ranked No. 18 in the country (thinking), ‘We’re going to win that one,’ ” Bulldogs coach Otis Hughley Jr. said. “Mentally you don’t have all your guys there, so we were hoping to exploit that.”
Coleman Hawkins’ free throws broke an eight-minute Illinois scoring drought, and Mayer added a pair of layups during a 10-2 run that pushed the lead back to nine points.
“With our team, you never whose night it can be,” Shannon said. “I’m just happy for Matt, who has been working so hard getting his body right and conditioning.”
The Bulldogs struggled to establish any scoring rhythm in the first half, missing 10 consecutive attempts from long distance after Hicks made one for the game’s first bucket. The Illini turned them over nine times and held them to 6-of-30 shooting for the half.
“We’ve got 16 new guys, it’s the first year,” Hughley said. “They’ve never been in a Power Five arena before, none of these guys, and played to win. Last year, if they’d have played this game and got down, they’d have gotten beat by 50.”
Mayer openly acknowledged being at odds with coach Brad Underwood over his pregame fasts, which Mayer believes has helped him play better the last three games.
Chicago Tribune Sports
A daily sports newsletter delivered to your inbox for your morning commute.
“I think where me and coach Underwood might separate a bit is, I have a lot of stuff wrong with my body that I’m trying to work on, and he’s a big ‘everything is mental’ kind of guy,” Mayer said. “And we’re having a miscommunication on that. So yes, I’m still fasting and it’s been helping me a lot. “
Underwood said he does not “worry about (the fasting) for one second” and said he wants Mayer to find a pregame routine and stick with it.
“It’s (Mayer) adapting to us and what we do and us still trying to find the right buttons to push,” Underwood said. “But whatever that button is, I need to find that one because that was really, really impressive what he did (in the second half).”
Alabama A&M: The Bulldogs can be explosive from long distance, but they were unable to replicate the magic from a 17-for-21 3-point outing against Rust College on Thursday. First-year coach Otis Hughley Jr. has some extended practice time with his group between road tests at Vanderbilt and Ohio State before SWAC play begins in January.
Illinois: A long layoff gave the Illini a chance to reset after a disappointing home loss to Penn State a week ago. Even as the Bulldogs mounted a steady comeback, Illinois looked uninspired. Scoring droughts and recent struggles in halfcourt sets are a concern.
Alabama A&M: Visits struggling Vanderbilt on Thursday.
Illinois: Heads to St. Louis on Thursday to play Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game.