The McKendree Bearcats broke out to an 11-point lead in the first half, but the Illinois Fighting Illini bounced back to post a 101-66 victory Thursday in the exhibition opener for both teams in Champaign.
Senior guard Clinton Happe led a balanced attack with 15 points while junior forward Jeremy Price chipped in with 12 points and three assists in his first appearance for the Bearcats.
"I thought in the first half we did a very, very good job," said McKendree coach Harry Statham, who is beginning his 48th season at the helm of the Bearcats' program. "Especially in that first 15 minutes. We came out and attacked and tried to be aggressive. We expected a lot (of Illinois) and they gave it to us. It's a big gym and they've been practicing for a while."
McKendree broke from the gates quickly, sinking five of its first six three-point attempts on its way to the double-digit lead in the first half. Happe drilled a 3-pointer to give the Bearcats their first lead of the contest at 5-2 before junior guard Mike DiGregorio and Price hit from long range on consecutive possessions to stretch the lead to 11-3. Another trifecta from DiGregorio gave the Bearcats their first double-digit lead of the night at 17-6. The host Illini chipped away and pulled within nine before Price sank a jumper to extend the lead back to 21-10 with 11:27 remaining in the first half.
Illinois cut into the Bearcats' lead and used an 8-2 burst, capped by a jumper by Joseph Bertrand, to pull within 32-29. McKendree was able to stretch the lead back to 35-31 on a basket by Happe with 4:08 left in the first half before the Illini took the lead for good. Illinois outscored the Bearcats 16-4 the remainder of the half to take a 47-39 lead at the intermission.
After McKendree junior forward Arthur Williams scored in the lane on the Bearcats' first possession of the second half, Illinois scored the next nine points to push the margin to 58-41 with 16:57 to play. The Illini shot 64.7 percent (22-of-34) from the field in the final 20 minutes as they pulled away for the victory.
McKendree, which shot 43.3 percent (13-of-30) in the opening half, hit on just 28.1 percent (9-of-32) of their field goal tries in the final period.
DiGregorio finished with 10 points and two assists for McKendree, while senior forward Will Kirksey pulled down a team-leading five rebounds in the first half.
"I saw a lot of good things from our guys tonight," said Statham. "It's only the first exhibition game, but I think we saw some things we wanted to see. The key is making adjustments to get ready for Missouri State. I really do feel like there are good things ahead for our team."
Tracy Abrams led the Illini with 16 points, while Rayvonte Rice and Jaylon Tate each chipped in with 13 points in the effort. Bertrand added eight points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots for Illinois.