The 8-0 Fighting Illini entered play Tuesday after defeating Georgia Tech last Wednesday. The Illini’s early season success earned them a #13 ranking in the AP poll and #14 ranking in the Coaches poll. Illinois looked to remain undefeated as they took on the 3-5 Western Carolina Catamounts. The game started ugly for both teams, as they combined for 14 points in the games first eight minutes. Then, the Illini got in touch with their friend, the three point shot. Back-to-back three’s from sophomore forward Mike Shaw and senior guard D.J. Richardson gave the Illini their first double digit lead of the contest at the 10:02 mark in the first half.
Every time it seemed like the Illini were about to blow the game up, the Catamounts would have an answer. Catamount sophomore guard James Sinclair tied the game up on a drive to the basket with under six minutes left. The Fighting Illini took a 62-56 lead with four minutes left after back-to-back three’s from Richardson. Richardson finished with 13 points. A step-up jumper by Abrams gave the Illini their second double digit of the contest at 66-56 with 2:24 left, closing the curtains on Western Carolina’s Cinderella story. It wasn’t pretty, but Illinois went on to beat Western Carolina by a final of 72-64.
Illini coach John Groce wasn’t about to let his team off the hook after a disappointing performance. But nonetheless, he’s proud his team got the W.
“We didn’t get it done in a lot of areas tonight,” Groce said. “One area we did get it done though is we were able to win the game because these guys once again made big plays. Now obviously we don’t want to play Russian roulette. We gotta learn and we gotta learn quickly that you have to compete and you have to be ready to go and you have to play a complete 40 minute game.”
Troubles started early for the Illini, as they went almost four minutes without scoring until junior Joseph Bertrand broke the slump with a three pointer with 15:20 left in the half. Bertrand came off of a big-time performance against Georgia Tech where he scored 15 points, including a Sportscenter top ten play. His hot play didn’t carry over into this game, as he finished with only 7 points and 4 turnovers. Groce hoped to see more out of Bertrand.
“I thought our bench played well with the exception of Bertrand,” Groce said. “I’m not trying to pick on Bertrand, he wasn’t himself tonight. He’d be the first to tell you that.”
Catamount junior guard Brandon Boggs kept his team in the game early, scoring eight points in the games’ first 12 minutes and hitting a three to cut the Illini lead to five. Boggs finished with 16 points and had four three’s in the game. The game remained close throughout most of the first half until the Illini finally came alive in the final two minutes. Illinois strayed from their perimeter game as the game progressed and began to attack the basket, taking a ten point lead into the locker room after a slam by senior guard Brandon Paul. Paul finished with 14 points.
Both teams played a pretty forgettable half, as shots weren’t falling and players were sloppy with the ball. Both teams shot below 35% in the first half. The Illini outscored the Catamounts 29-4 off turnovers, including 17-0 in the first half. Groce was thrilled about his team’s defensive performance. Maybe too thrilled.
“The most valuable lesson I learned tonight is to wear dark underwear,” Groce said. “It’s important because I ripped the bottom of my pants out trying to get in a defense stance. So I apologize to all of those people that saw me.”
Western Carolina came out of the locker for the second half on a mission, cutting the Illini lead to three after a jumper by junior guard Trey Sumler. Just as Illinois built the lead back up to six points after a put back slam by Bertrand, Sumler added another three to bring the Catamounts within three with 14:05 remaining. Soon after an and-one finish by Western Carolina Junior guard Preston Ross tied up the game. Ross finished with a game high 17 points.
The Illini began to stretch the lead out once again after sophomore forward Myke Henry got out on the break and finished an and-one. Henry finished with 9 points in only 12 minutes of action. Freshman forward Devin Langford cleaned up Henry’s miss at the free throw line with a put back, giving the Illini a 50-44 lead with under ten minutes left in the ball game.
The Illini’s big three’s and clutch free throws down the stretch made the difference. Illinois got to the line 14 times in the second half and only gave up four turnovers.
With the win, Groce became the first Illinois coach to start his career 9-0 in over 100 years. The Fighting Illini remain undefeated at 9-0 and Western Carolina fell to 3-6 on the season.