CHAMPAIGN — Samba Kane and Cheikh Mbacke Diong used to dream about this moment: to come to the United States and play college basketball.
The two went to Florida Prep Academy together after leaving Dakar, Senegal. Diong ended up at UNLV, where he's now a sophomore starter. Kane has been battling for minutes after missing the entire summer as a freshman at Illinois.
Long before Illinois (3-8) beat UNLV 77-74 on Saturday at the State Farm Center to snap a three-game losing streak, Kane sent Diong a text.
“I was like, ‘Bro, it’s kind of like a dream for us. We both had the dream to come to the states and play basketball here. God helped us. We are playing against each other now,'" Kane said. "That’s a great feeling."
It just so happened, that Kane was the first one off of head coach Brad Underwood's bench and turned in the best performance of his young career. He hammered home a pair of dunks, swatted shots and gave the Illini a spark, finishing with eight points, two blocks and two rebounds.
Kane's performance was a welcomed sight on a team that has seen him improve by leaps and bounds in practice. He's started to turn in plays that were made out of instinct, not instruction, including a thunderous dunk in the first half where he faked a handoff to guard Andres Feliz and plowed though the lane for a dunk.
“MVP tonight," Illinois junior Kipper Nichols, who had 12 points, said of Kane. "He stepped up in a major way. Confidence is everything in the game of basketball. I think he got a little bit of that tonight. We’ve known what he could do since day one, it’s just about getting caught up to speed."
In the first half, Kane swatted away UNLV (4-4) big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and channeled his inner Dikembe Mutombo with a finger wag that sent a jolt of swagger and confidence through the team.
Nichols hadn't seen Kane pay homage to Mutombo in practice, but on Saturday, he joined in on the finger wag.
“That was big time," Underwood said of the move. "That’s fun. Some people look at that stuff as taunting or whatever. I think one of the dumbest rules we have is letting kids not enjoy moments on the bench. That’s probably 40 times a game we get people telling us to sit down.
"The game’s about energy, about enthusiasm, about kids having fun. That little moment was pretty cool I’m happy for him."
But the Illini flirted with disaster and came dangerously close to punting the chance to capitalize on Kane's performance or the 19 points Feliz provided off the bench.
Illinois led by 14, 61-47, with 8:23 left in the game after freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili converted two free throws, then disaster started to show it's head.
A 6-0 UNLV run in just over a minute cut the lead to eight points, 61-53 with 7:01 left. Illinois got back up by double figures after a Nichols layup with 4:41 left, but UNLV didn't budge. The Runnin' Rebels went on a 5-0 run in just over a minute again and ended up as close as two points with 18 seconds left in the game after a Diong (13 points) dunk.
Illinois freshman Ayo Dosunmu hit one of two free throws with 13 seconds left, and Feliz stole the ball from Amauri Hardy with two seconds left and dribbled out the clock.
A 14-point lead was gone in a hurry, but Nichols thought it was an important stretch for his team, even if Underwood wouldn't necessarily agree.
“What happened was very important for us," Nichols said. "On top of getting the win, I think those last three or four minutes, I think we grew up. We grew up as a team, having to actually win the game. It didn’t come easy for us. We could have kept a 14-point lead until zero and it might have been a little different."
After games this season where the Illini have let games slip and slide away in the second half, they finally found themselves on the right side of a close game.
“This one was a pretty big win, after a while where we had not won," Feliz said. "We’re still there. We keep working hard every single day and stay together as a team."
As for Kane, he was all smiles after the game, playing a big role in the most important win of the season for Illinois. He saw Diong sit behind Brandon McCoy last season and bide his time behind a standout player.
Now, Kane was in the spotlight with a budding confidence after being pushed and pushed by his teammates. He made his season debut just four games ago against Mississippi Valley State. Underwood never even thought about redshirting the player who missed a majority of the summer.
“It means a lot, just knowing that coach trusts me in this game to get the win, it meant a lot to me," Kane said.