As he stepped onto the State Farm Court for the first time as Illinois' coach, Brad Underwood smiled broadly and pointed to fans in the Orange Krush student section.
He scanned the arena before tipoff as if he was a tourist arriving at a bucket-list destination. Underwood, who was hired in March from Oklahoma State, said this week that he is always a bundle of nerves before games.
To soak it in, as well as show support, he arrived at the arena especially early Friday to attend the Illini women's game which preceded the men's.
"It's pretty cool," he said. "I love the smell of an arena, the atmosphere of an arena. Just to soak that in for a minute. I have so much love for students and the support they bring. I'll be honest. I was nervous. I was emotional, I guess, from the standpoint I'm living out my dream. When 14,000 show up tonight, it's pretty special. All in all it was a good night."
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His debut was a success as Illinois decimated Southern, 102-55, Friday night. The Illini's final point tally was their most in a season opener since scoring 103 in 1990 under coach Lou Henson.
Fans roared as Underwood exited the court, and he pointed toward them thankfully.
A promising start, indeed.
"Tonight's Step 1 of getting our swagger back," Underwood said.
Guard Mark Alstork, a transfer from Wright State, produced a double-double with a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds in his first game for the Illini. He shot 4 of 8 from the floor and hit 9 of 10 free-throw attempts, leading the way for the Illini, who were 34 of 37 from the line.
Illinois' ability to attack the basket was on display with 36 points in the paint.
"I'm just coming out here trying to do my job," Alstork said.
Underwood had said having five players score in double digits was "perfect." They achieved that in the opener, where Aaron Jordan scored a career-high 17 points, Leron Black and Kipper Nichols each scored 14 points and Michael Finke added 12 points.
After last week's exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois, the victory felt like a relief as much as a celebration.
In that one, Finke had no rebounds and Black had just one in the first half. Against Southern, they combined for 12.
Illinois showed aggressiveness and a quick pace that fans have longed for in Champaign.
The Illini forced 22 turnovers and scored 33 points off of them. They outrebounded Southern, 42-26, and outscored the Jaguars 19-9 on second-chance points.
Illinois shot 50.8 percent from the floor despite shooting only 4 of 21 on 3-pointers.
"It just comes from effort," Jordan said.
With a 35-point lead in the second half, Underwood yelled to his team, "Don't relax."
It sounded like his players got the message.
"It is a good start but we can't settle for that," Jordan said.