In his debut as the Fighting Illini head coach, John Groce was welcomed by fans in the team’s home-opener. The Illini faced off against the Colgate Raiders from the Patriot League, where the team finished second to last in the conference with an 8-22 overall record last season. The game was a first round matchup in the EA Maui Invitational. To make Groce feel at home, the fans paid tribute to the “Silent Night” tradition of his alma mater Taylor University by refraining from cheering until the Illini reached 10 points. The tradition brought back memories for Groce.
“I thought it was very creative of them to do that,” Groce said. “Obviously a great tribute to Taylor University which is a special place to me. I had a great experience there. Paul Patterson is a terrific coach and has really been a great personal mentor as well as professional mentor to me for years so I thought it was a great tribute to Taylor.”
The silence was broken four minutes into the game on a Myke Henry three pointer that put the Illini up 12-5 and erupted the crowd at Assembly Hall. Soon after the stadium was silent one again, this time Colgate did the welcoming for Groce after going on a 7-0 run. A quick 10 points from Colgate senior Murphy Burnatowski kept the game close early on. Burnatowski would finish with 18 points in the first half.
The Illini tore off a 21-4 run capped off by a Brandon Paul lay-in. The run gave the Illini some much needed separation as the team went out to a 35-16 lead. The Illini were lights out from beyond the arc early, hitting ten three pointers in the first half.
Groce was satifised with the team’s perimeter play.
“In the first three minutes I thought we settled on a couple, but after that I would say 15 of the 18 were probably great looks,” Groce said. “We got guys who can shoot the ball. We had six different guys make threes in the first half, the guys have worked very hard this summer to earn the right to make shots.”
Paul had 12 points and 4 rebounds in the first half and finished with 20 points 8 rebounds and 5 assists in the game. Paul believes he still needs to choose his shots better.
“I think today I might have settled a little too much on the three point line,” Paul said. “A couple went in but at the same time we were hitting shots and the game was flowing and I think we played pretty well.”
The Fighting Illini led 43-25 at the break.
The second half started off with an exclamation point for the Fighting Illini with a jam by sophomore center Nnanna Egwu. The play resulted in a technical foul as Egwu held onto the rim for too long. Fans were delighted to see a glimpse of the athleticism they saw in Meyer Leonard, who is now a Portland Trailblazer. Egwu scored 7 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in his first start for the Illini.
Illinois got their biggest lead of the game off of a jumper by sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams that put the team up 59-34. Abrams hit three from downtown scoring 13 points and dishing out five assists.
As the lone Illinois point guard, Abrams is happy with the team’s ball handling.
“I’m pretty comfortable with me and my teammates handling the ball, it’s a work in progress,” Abrams said. “Brandon’s getting better handling the ball, I’m getting better, we just gotta stay confident and positive.”
The Illini struggled to stretch the lead out but continued to hit from long range as they finished with 13 three pointers on 30 attempts. Illinois also had a huge advantage on the glass, grabbing 47 boards to Colgate’s 32, including 19 offensive rebounds. Six different Illini players had at least six rebounds on the night.
Illini seniors Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson joined their teammates in the three point frenzy, adding five three pointers and 19 points combined.
The three point onslaught by Illinois proved too much for Colgate, as the Fighting Illini defeated the Raiders by a final of 75-55.
Groce was pleased with his team’s performance in his debut.
“We asked them to compete and play hard for 40 minutes,” Groce said. “We asked them to play unselfishly. And I thought we took strides in both of those areas at a high level. When you play unselfish and you compete hard, it gives you a chance every night.”
Groce is the 10th straight Illini coach to win his first game as Illinois head coach. With the win Illinois improved to 95-13 all-time in season openers.