CHAMPAIGN On Saturday there were plenty of reminders of the game, nearly a year ago, when Brandon Pauls 43-point outburst helped beat Ohio State (then No. 5) in Champaign. Fans got a poster commemorating the guards career-best game in the Illini program, and observant fans might have even noticed the senior was wearing the shoes from his big night.
Saturdays clash between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 11 Illinois was not the Brandon Paul show, however.
There were a handful of telling stats from the most recent meeting of these two Big Ten behemoths including Pauls team-leading 19 points. None was as impressive as the Illini holding their opponent to less than 30 points for more than 28 minutes, though.
Illinois played hard-nosed basketball for all 40 minutes against the Buckeyes and came away with a 74-55 win. For coach John Groce the effort his team gave was everything he could ask for.
We knew it would take a great effort and wed have to be tough and together to win. We did that, he said after the win.
In their Big Ten opener at Purdue on Wednesday, the Illini (14-2, 1-1) had the holes in their game torn open and exposed to the world, leading many to question if their 12-0 start to the season had been a fluke. A team effort full of toughness, however, will change the story about Illinois.
Purdue was just disappointing because thats not who weve been, Groce said. You cant win the games weve won in the environments weve been in if youre soft.
The chip on Illinois shoulder after losing to Purdue was evident from the first possession of the game. The Bucks gave the ball up the first two times they had it and the hosts made them pay. The Illini ripped off a quick 5-0 lead thanks to a Tracy Abrams three pointer.
Early on, Abrams showed home fans more of the impressive form he displayed in the win over Auburn at the United Center on Dec. 29. In the first 10 minutes of play, he was a perfect 3-3 from the field, grabbed three rebounds and dished out four assists.
His fourth assist, a big alley-oop to Paul, put Illinois up by 10 and raised the volume inside the Assembly Hall to near-deafening levels. Paul called Abrams early effort crucial for the rest of the team.
When he comes out with that energy it picks up other guysit takes pressure off other guys, Paul said.
Abrams finished the game with 13 points, five assists and six rebounds.
llinois continued to pull away from OSU thanks to another layup by Abrams, followed by a steal and layup from Joseph Bertrand to go ahead 25-11. But from 9:08 to 6:32 in the first, the Illini missed eight straight shots seven from behind the three-point line.
Defense kept Illinois in the lead, however, allowing OSU just a pair of free throws during the dry spell. The key to keeping a lead, according to center Nnanna Egwu, was staying calm.
It starts with coach Groce. He never panics, hes always level, he said. We feed off that.
Illinois calm helped them get back in the swing of the game, with an alley-oop from Paul to Bertrand jump-starting the offense. The hosts made four of their next five shots, including threes from Myke Henry and DJ Richardson. A steal by Egwu followed by a 12-foot jumper got Illinois to a 15-point lead with two minutes before half and had the fans in Champaign yelling again.
OSU would cut into Illinois lead a bit, but the home fans cheered the Illini to the locker room at halftime with a 37-25 lead.
The crowd continued to have good reason to cheer after the break, as the Illini started the half on an 11-2 tear to get to the 16-minute mark ahead 48-27. The next few minutes featured some sloppy play from both teams, but Illinois continued to hold off the Buckeyes; and, as the clock ticked below 12 minutes left in the game, OSU had still not cracked 30 points, trailing 53-29.
Deshaun Thomas, who scored a game-high 24 points, and the Bucks turned up their energy level and cut Illinois lead to less than 20 with 8:43 left. But the Illini continued to make it tough for the guests to develop any significant run. Egwu made the lead 20 again with a big dunk with 4:52 to play, he would finish the game with a career-high 16 points.
After the game, everyone was full of praise for Egwus performance. OSU coach Thad Matta said the Illinois big man was very, very good, and Groce hailed him for his devotion to the team.
He keeps getting better, and if theres ever a kid who deserves to get better it is him. He works his tail offI love him, the Illinois coach said about the Chicago native.
OSU would cut the lead below 20 again in the final seconds, but the final few minutes were but a formality for Illinois. The home team would finish off the Bucks with ease and even their Big Ten record win a win and a loss.
After being out-rebounded by 10 in the loss to Purdue, Illinois turned the tables, winning the battle on the glass by ten against OSU, 40-30. The Illini also improved in the paint, going from 18 points to 24 points in the paint on Saturday, and beat the Bucks in blocks, eight to one.
Matta laid the blame for the loss on his teams turnovers, however.
We were forced to hurry things instead of trying to do what we wanted to do, he said.
OSU came into the game outscoring opponents by 21 (77.6 to 56.5), out-rebounding opponents by eight (39.7 to 31.6) and shooting 46 percent from the floor. Illinois reversed all those numbers, most impressively holding the Buckeyes to just 33 percent shooting while making 48 percent of their own shots.
Unlike previous games, though, Illinois was not reliant upon the three point shot. The Illini took just 12 shots from behind the arc in the entire second half, taking twice as many shots from inside the arc during that time.
Groce was confident his team had learned lessons from the Purdue loss, which he said kept him awake on Thursday night. He credited their great play against Ohio State on hard practices Thursday and Friday. He said no game, not even an impressive win like the one his team pulled off on Saturday, would be a focal point for the Illini, though.
Each game is so differentwere not going to define our season by one game win or lose, Groce said. The guys responded at a high level against OSU. We have to enjoy this today, but we better be tough again on Wednesday.
The Illini host no. 9 Minnesota on Wednesday.