The youngsters took baby steps for Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber. Freshman guard Myke Henry grabbed a rebound and made the game-winning free throw with 6 seconds left as Illinois edged Northwestern 57-56 on Wednesday. The Chicago Orr product is a jump shooter who has a knack for scoring even when he doesn't do much else right, Weber said, and Henry played key minutes down the stretch.

CHAMPAIGN -- The youngsters took baby steps for Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber.


Freshman guard Myke Henry grabbed a rebound and made the game-winning free throw with 6 seconds left as Illinois edged Northwestern 57-56 on Wednesday. The Chicago Orr product is a jump shooter who has a knack for scoring even when he doesn't do much else right, Weber said, and Henry played key minutes down the stretch.


"With playing time comes trust,'' said Henry. "I'm thinking that he's trying to start trusting us now.''


Classmate Nnanna Egwu scored all of his nine points in the first half, when center Meyers Leonard was "putzing around'' and found his way to the bench, Weber said. Freshman point guard Tracy Abrams wasn't a scoring threat, but he had five rebounds and three assists before fouling out in his first Big Ten start in place of Sam Maniscalco, who missed the game with ankle pain.


The other three freshmen -- forward Mike Shaw, guard Devin Langford and center Ibby Djimde -- didn't play, but Weber felt freshman practices held before the full team workouts produced benefits. When Illinois (13-3 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten) hosts Nebraska (8-6, 0-3) on Saturday (noon, BTN), a focus will be on the ballyhooed freshmen.


Hyped by the recruiting analysts, they weren't impact players immediately for the Illini, but they've shown improvement during extra workouts during Christmas break, Weber said.


"It's really helped them,'' Weber said. "It helped Nnanna, really helped Myke Henry and even Mike Shaw. (Northwestern) was such a tough matchup for him. Nebraska is much bigger, so now we can play Mike Shaw.''


With Maniscalco's ankle leaving him doubtful against Nebraska and junior forward Tyler Griffey's minutes trimmed, there is opportunity for the freshmen to get on the floor, but it's a matter of earning Weber's trust. That's not an easy chore, even though sophomore Joe Bertrand broke through and worked his way into the starting lineup. Perhaps it's not too late for these freshmen to make a move.


"He's getting more comfortable playing us and seeing what we can do,'' Egwu said. "As the season goes on, you'll see more of that. He's going to get more trust in us.


"We have to produce. We to have to come in and do something. We can't go in and just show effort. We have to have some kind of production. As long as we keep doing that, he'll use us more and more toward the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA tournament.''


Adjusting to the speed of the game has been difficult for Egwu, who didn't play organized basketball until high school.


"Early in the year, we had to think,'' he said. "You feel more comfortable. It's just a reaction and instinct. We have problems, but we're progressing.''


After being outscored in eight of the previous nine games, the Illini bench held a slim 17-14 edge in scoring over Northwestern.


Otherwise, the Illini were fortunate to end a two-game losing streak at Northwestern and a five-game slide in Chicagoland, needing a last-second block by Leonard to save the game. After losing by 15 at Purdue (it wasn't even that close), there was one rule for the Illini.


"We had an 'out-standing rule' tonight," Weber said moments after the game. "If you are caught out standing on the court, you're going to be running tomorrow.''


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.