CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The SIUE men's basketball team forced 22 turnovers on the road at the University of Illinois Monday night but dropped its 2011-12 season opener 66-46 at the Assembly Hall. The game was the opening matchup of the Cancun Challenge for both squads.
The Cougars (0-1) dropped the season opener for the fourth time in five seasons under Head Coach Lennox Forrester, including a loss at Illinois to open the 2009-10 season. Illinois improved to 2-0 with the victory.
"I thought we came out with some defensive intensity," Forrester said. "We have to do a better job on the offensive glass. I was pleased with the intensity we brought out here tonight."
After the Fighting Illini opened the game with the first six points, junior Mark Yelovich cut the deficit in half with a three-pointer.
Freshman Kris Davis got the Cougars within four at 11-7 but Illinois increased its lead to 18-7 with a 7-0 run before a jumper by Yelovich ended the drought for SIUE.
Yelovich ended the game with a team-high 13 points, eight of which came in the first half. Corey Wickware added 12 for the Cougars all coming from behind the three-point line as he finished 4 of 6 from behind the arc.
With less than four minutes to play in the first half, a 6-0 run by SIUE cut the 12-point Illinois lead down to six as Wickware, a senior, connected on back-to-back three pointers.
SIUE had open looks at the basket in the first half but could not convert as it shot just 29 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes as Illinois carried a 36-23 advantage into the break.
The Cougars found a spark, starting the second stanza on a 5-0 run highlighted by a coast-to-coast layup by junior Derian Shaffer. It was defense that led the charge, forcing the Illini to turn the ball over on their first three possessions of the half.
"I told them it is a 40-minute game, not 20," Forrester said. "They have to understand that on any given night you can win a basketball game."
The 22 Illinois turnovers is more than the Cougars forced in any game a season ago.
"Our guys did a good job of paying attention to the details and pressuring the basketball," Forrester added. "They have a lot of talent so for our guys to come out and play some defense and have Illinois commit 22 turnovers is a step in the right direction of where we want our defense to be."
Junior Zeke Schneider corralled his own rebound and converted the put back to get SIUE within seven at 44-37 with 13 minutes to play.
That would be all the closer SIUE would get as the Ilini took control of the game behind an 11-0 run as they cruised to the finish for the 66-46 win.
The key difference in the game came down to Illinois controlling the glass. The Illini pulled down 48 rebounds to only 27 for SIUE. That led to a 13-7 margin in second-chance points.
Free throws were another critical area as the Cougars only made it to the charity stripe six times converting four while Illinois made 17 of its 24 chances.
SIUE will have to recover quickly as they face another quality team on the road Thursday night at Illinois State in round two of the Cancun Challenge. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.