Nov. 19—LAS VEGAS — Illinois freshman Sencire Harris was on the bench for the entire first half.
The 6-foot-4 guard finally entered the game just 1 minute, 50 seconds into the second half with the 19th-rated Fighting Illini trailing the eight-rated UCLA Bruins 41-29.
But, that's when everything changed.
The Fighting Illini outscored the Bruins 50-31 in the game's final 18 minutes to record a 79-70 triumph in the Continental Tire Main Event at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
"It's amazing you go in with a mindset about a game. For whatever reason, I didn't play (Sencire Harris) in the first half. We have all seen Sencire in the first three game impact things a a very high level," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "In the second half, I knew we had to get back to our press. I knew we need to force that tempo — change it.
"Sencire was great. He had some easy baskets and I thought he was important."
Harris seemingly ignited 14-7 run in his first five minutes on the court with a steal that turned into a dunk for Coleman Hawkins. Illinois (4-0) would pull within 48-43 on a basket by freshman Jayden Epps with 13:47 left.
The Illini would eventually go on a 15-1 run midway through the second half as senior Terrence Shannon Jr. capped the scoring spurt with one of his eight 3-pointers — tying a program record.
"It was actually during a media timeout Matt (Mayer) came to me and said I got to get aggressive — that's what I did," said Shannon, who finished with game highs in points (29) and rebounds (10). "Sencire set the tone on the defense side. that gave me an energy boost and that's when we got on that run."
Illinois would seal the victory with 3-pointers by Shannon and Skyy Clark, a three-point play by Hawkins and a pair of free throws by Clark in the final minutes.
The Illini had four players finish in double figures. Shannon with 29, Dain Dainja came off the bench with 13, followed by Matthew Mayer with 11 and Clark with 10.
Tyger Campbell was the leading scorer for UCLA (3-1) with 22 points. Also reaching double digits for the Bruins were Jaime Jacuez Jr. with 20 and David Singleton had 15.
Illinois will play Virginia, an 86-79 winner over Baylor, in the championship game on Sunday at 2 p.m.
That game can be seen on ESPN and it can be heard on the Illini Sports Network.