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Chattanooga rallies past Illinois

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Chattanooga Illinois Basketball

Illinois guard Malcolm Hill (21) and Chattanooga forward Tre' McLean (23) go after a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Prairie Capital Convention Center on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • Chuck Ester and Chattanooga had led Illinois all game Saturday, much of it by double digits, and suddenly faced a nine-point deficit with just over six minutes to play.

So the Mocs (3-0) attacked Illinois’ weakness, 3-point defense, by going to their strength, scoring balance. Chattanooga won 81-77 by making five straight 3-pointers from four different players.

Ester made two of the five, and his final stat line (five of five for 12 points, including two for two on treys) had Illinois coach John Groce tipping his cap in the postgame.

“I don’t think we beat ourselves down stretch with that nine-point lead,” Groce said. “I think they took it.

“If you told me they were going to make five 3s in a row, two by Ester, one by (Duke) Ethridge and one by (Tre) McLean ... I’d say no way. But it happened. That’s the beauty of college basketball. I give those guys credit.”

The long balls were the first of the year for Ester and Ethridge, who was making his season debut. McLean was one for seven coming into the game.

“Our players were following the game plan,” Groce said.

The fourth-year coach was upset about the deciding 3, by Eric Robertson. The last of senior’s team-high 15 points put Chattanooga up 77-74 with 1:58 to play and the Mocs would not trail again.

“We did make a mistake on leaving their best shooter open in the corner,” Groce said of the Southern Conference’s top 3-point percentage shooter last season.

Before Illinois’ short-lived lead, the story in this temporary home of the Illini was Chattanooga controlling the home team in much the way North Florida did in the season opener.

“They were trying to blow us out from the jump,” said Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (Belleville East), who scored 19 of his 25 after halftime.

Chattanooga produced six first-half steals off its game-long pressure defense, outrebounded Illinois and had a half-dozen players with multiple baskets by intermission. A lead that was as large as 15 at one point was 39-32 at the break.

“Where we were able to build the lead was playing the right way and sharing the ball,” first-year head coach Matt McCall said. “They were playing with confidence, playing with freedom and playing for each other.”

Hill ignited Illinois’ large surge by converting consecutive steals into five points, starting at the 17:17 mark. He later tied it at 55 on a fadeaway jumper, then scored six straight points for Illinois’ largest lead with 6:26 to go.

Ethridge started the Mocs’ counter with two free throws, then his 3 was sandwiched by Ester’s two. McLean followed with the tying trey at 2:52, and Robertson worked free in the left corner a minute later.

“I’m going to give those kids credit,” Groce said. “To make five 3s in a row over a six-possession stretch, your offense has to be near-perfect if the game is close at all.”

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