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Stompin’ Sencire: Illinois Basketball’s Afterburner



Feb 11, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Sencire Harris (1) reacts after scoring during the first half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Under the Radar

In an offseason that saw just 16% of minutes from their Big Ten Championship team return, Illinois was bound to trot out some new faces. Brad Underwood was not shy about going big game hunting, bringing in one of the top ranked transfer classes in the nation. To go with those experienced pieces, Underwood also landed the 11th ranked recruiting class in the nation per 247sports. There were three four-star guards in the class. When I went to check out Sencire Harris, one play immediately caught my eye.

In a nationally televised game in Columbus, Ohio, Harris’ Akron-based St. Vincent St. Mary’s team took on national powerhouse Sierra Canyon from California. While two great programs like that going head-to-head should be enough reason to watch, it also saw Bronny James take on his dad’s alma mater. With LeBron James sitting courtside, St. Vincent St. Mary’s gave the West-Coasters quite the battle. With under four minutes left, the Irish led by five. Kentucky commit BJ Boston scooped up a loose ball, and then..

A play that perfectly portended his first year with the Illini. Not just the explosive athleticism, but turning around, and probably talking trash to LeBron James in the gray hoodie and black beanie:

Despite the major block, Harris was certainly not the main attraction of the game. There were two NBA draft picks on Sierra Canyon. Additionally, Malaki Branham was the star of Harris’ squad. Sierra Canyon won the game with a last second layup, but St. Vincent St. Mary’s gave them everything they could take.

Much like in that game, Harris was not the headliner of the 2022 Illinois recruiting class. He was copilot for Branham when they won the first of two straight state titles. In his senior season, Sencire eventually led the Irish to a repeat.

Coming into his freshman year at Illinois, top 50 guards Jayden Epps and Skyy Clark were penciled in as the ball handlers. Plus, with highly touted conbo-forward, Ty Rodgers coming in, it was difficult to see a clear path on the court for the wiry freshman.

Test Flight

Almost immediately into the season it was clear that the explosion that popped off the screen would translate. He came out in his Illini debut wearing a headband and the number one, a clear homage to recently departed Illini legend Trent Frazier. Frazier made his bones on the defensive end of the floor, and Sencire clearly took inspiration from that. In Illinois first *real* game of the season, they found themselves down double digits in Las Vegas to Top 10 ranked UCLA. Underwood hit the Sencire Harris button:

Harris set the tone for the half, showing no fear against UCLA’s big two, Jaime Jacquez Jr. and Tyger Cambpell. It wasn’t just the on the court effect either. He brought the Illini crowd roaring to life in a rowdy environment. After a massive layup, Harris let out what I believe to be the first recorded Illini edition of the Sencire Stomp. Watching it in person was special. The test flight passed with flying colors.

The Stompin’ Specs

Harris lodged himself into the heart of the rotation and the fanbase with his non-conference heroics. With the team in a lull in December, Harris suddenly moved into the starting lineup. Due to the Illini’s lackadaisical form, Underwood needed Harris’ defensive heat. After Skyy Clark left the program, Harris became the de facto ball handler along with Epps. Epps eventually took over Harris’ starting spot due to his more potent offensive game, but Harris impact is felt on almost every game. According to Hoop Lens, Illinois is at its best defensively with Harris on the floor.

Of the rotation players, the .81 Points Per Possession given up when Sencire is on the floor is the lowest of any. To compare, Tennessee’s top ranked defense gives up .80 Points Per Possession in a game. He leads the Illini in Defensive Box Plus Minus as well. Opposing teams turn it over at a higher rate with Harris on the floor and shoot under 40% on two pointers. Harris also has the highest steal rate on the team, as we have seen those steals often go the other way in a hurry.

Obviously, Harris has a way to go on some areas of the game. Sometimes the afterburner runs a little too hot too long and he gets himself in trouble. His intensity can get him in foul trouble, and he can be out of control at times offensively. For a lefty he is very right-handed in terms of going to the basket and has room to improve at the free throw line. However, on a team that needs to play defense first, Harris often finds himself as the catalyst stomping the Illini past the best teams they play. He is a team high +80 in games against ranked opponents, with Coleman Hawkins in second at +27.

Full Thrust

In the game of the year against Northwestern, Illinois once again hit the afterburner down double digits. Harris stepped up on Boo Buie and held him without a field goal in the last 12 minutes. After a big defensive stop, ‘Buck’ Harris pulled out yet another stomp and then another one after an end-to-end sequence. It’s a signature move that I can’t say I’ve seen before, but perfectly captures the essence of Harris as a player: explosive, passionate, and one of one. I certainly like it a lot more than a floor slap.

It can be easy to get lost in projecting the future for these kind of players. But for now, I will enjoy Sencire stomping the Illini defense into overdrive.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.