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CHICAGO (AP) — John Groce hasn't always liked the way his Illinois basketball team has started or finished games early in a season when the Illini have battled injuries and inconsistency.
But when Illinois needed to respond Saturday after their double-digit lead disappeared in the second half, Groce couldn't complain with the result.
Malcolm Hill scored 22 points and Jalen Coleman-Lands added 15 as the Illini beat Illinois-Chicago 83-79 for their third straight win.
Hill hit four straight free throws in the final minute to allow the Illini (6-5) to hold off the Flames after fighting back from a late deficit when Illinois-Chicago used a 14-0 run to take a two-point lead with under 10 minutes to play.
"I think bad teams — if they weren't connected — they probably would have crumbled instead of staying composed," Coleman-Lands said. "I think that was good for our team right there."
Coleman-Lands' 3-point field goal with 4:10 remaining gave Illinois a 66-65 lead after Illinois-Chicago's offense went cold during a stretch when the Flames (1-6) missed 8 of 10 shots.
Hill, who finished 11 of 14 from the free-throw line, hit a pair of free throws with 3:49 left to snap a 66-66 tie and give Illinois the lead for good.
Michael Finke and Kendrick Dunn each had 14 points in Illinois' balanced scoring attack.
But it was the way Illinois responded that will stick with Groce moving forward.
"I'm really proud of the way, we get down one, and they just show great poise and composure," Groce said. "I thought that was a great step for us."
The Flames, who lost their fourth straight, took a 56-54 lead on a short jumper by Dixson as part of the 14-0 scoring run that gave Illinois-Chicago the lead.
Illinois, which had led by as many as 12, failed to score for five minutes before Hill split a pair of free throws to end the drought.
But the Flames, who hit 9 of 15 from 3-point range — including one by Paris Burns that got Illinois Chicago to within 82-79 with five seconds left — couldn't keep surging, eventually giving way to Illinois' strong finish.
"I knew they'd answer the run," Flames' first-year coach Steve McClain said. "They're a good basketball team. They're a Big Ten team. We put ourselves in a position to win. That's growth for us."
Dikembe Dixson led Illinois-Chicago with 20 points to go along with 18 from Dominique Matthews.
Illinois led 41-30 at halftime. The Illini, who trailed by as many as seven in the first half, used an 11-0 run midway through the half to help build the double-digit lead.
But after Illinois-Chicago used its own run to take the lead before the Illini made their surge late in the second half, a team that is still adjusting to not being at full strength showed its mettle in a game Groce said his team will learn from as the Illini move closer to Big Ten play.
"Winning can sometimes be a deodorant and it can hide up maybe what you stunk at," he said. "We don't want to use that. We want to find the things we need to get better at."
Illinois-Chicago: Matthews, the brother of Kentucky's Charles Matthews, scored the Flames' first 12 points. ... Flames starting guard Najeal Young left the game in the first half with an ankle injury.
Illinois: The Illini used the same starting lineup for a second straight game, but have used 10 different groups of starters in 11 games. ... The Illini improved to 14-2 against UIC. ... Saturday's game marked the 50th time Illinois has played at Chicago's United Center (36-14).
Illinois-Chicago hosts Illinois State on Wednesday.
Illinois hosts South Dakota on Dec. 19.
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