LINCOLN, Neb. – The sting from last season's 23-point loss and the visions of former Illinois center Meyers Leonard weeping on the bench quickly became distant memory Tuesday night for the Illini.
The Illini knew Nebraska's Cornhuskers were capable. They knew they couldn't afford a slow start. They knew they sorely needed a victory.
Playing with a sense of urgency that seemed to be missing lately, Illinois (15-5, 2-4 Big Ten) ended a three-game skid in what evolved into a rather hostile environment with a 71-51 victory.
D.J. Richardson scored a career-high 30 points and made a career-high 6 of 9 3-pointers to lead the charge. He moved into third-place on all-time 3-pointers made in school history with 241, behind Corey Bradford (327) and Dee Brown (299).
Coach John Groce achieved his 100th career victory, including his four seasons at Ohio.
The last thing Illinois needed was a repeat of last year's implosion at the Devaney Center, when Nebraska (10-10, 1-6) used a 36-4 run to run the Illini out of the gym. The blowout loss all but signaled the end of NCAA tournament hopes and the Bruce Weber era.
Tuesday's game was far from easy despite the lopsided score. Despite several double-digit leads, the Illini had to stave off a few hard charges from the gritty Cornhuskers.
The most crucial stretch came around the 8t-minute mark of the second half when the Cornhuskers pulled to within 51-44 on a David Rivers basket.
On the next possession, Brandon Paul appeared to be tied up by 6-foot-11, 311-pound center Andre Almeida but a foul was called that sent Paul to the free throw line. The home crowd erupted in disbelief over the call. Then Paul hit a pair of free throws and D.J. Richardson followed with a 3-pointer.
During a timeout, Nebraska coach Tim Miles voiced his displeasure with the call and was slapped with a technical. By the time all was said and done, the Illini were up 58-44 and back in control.
Illinois jumped out to a11-point edge to start the game, held off a brief charge, then cruised to a 35-23 halftime lead. Richardson paved the way with 10 first-half points as the Illini received contributions from just about every player in the rotation. Paul and Joseph Bertrand had seven points each in the first half as Illinois ended the half on a 9-2 run.
Sam McLaurin sent an early message when he backed down and overpowered Nebraska's Shavon Shields down low for a thunderous dunk and the game's first points. Although the Illini settled for questionable long-distance shots at times, they were opportunistic with their transition baskets and putbacks.
Star of the game: D.J. Richardson, Illinois, 30 points, 6 3-pointers
Up next: Michigan at Illinois, 5 p.m. Sunday (BTN)