The 7-0 Illinois Fighting Illini faced off against the 4-1 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game. In their last game Illinois needed a last second three pointer by senior Tyler Griffey to beat Gardner-Webb on Sunday. After a week that included four wins en route to an EA Sports Maui Invitational Championship, the Illini entered the contest with a #22 overall ranking in both the AP and coaches poll. The Yellow Jackets earned third place in the DirecTV Classic after defeating Rice and Saint Mary’s.
The Illini got out to a quick 6-2 lead to start the game, but Georgia Tech quickly answered with a 7-0 run after a jumper from freshman Robert Carter. Illinois responded by nailing 3 three-pointers to take a 15-14 lead five minutes into the contest.
The Yellow Jackets were aggressive early on, earning six free throws in the games first eight minutes. All 12,224 fans at Assembly Hall roared in dismay one call after the other. Illinois only attempted one free throw in the half compared to Georgia Tech’s ten attempts. Illini coach John Groce says his team needed to get back in transition.
“They’re very physically tough, they play fast, and they rebound,” Groce said. “I thought early in the game their transition really got us on our heels a little bit. We adjusted and got back better, man and zone, to set our defense.”
Another 7-0 gave Georgia Tech a 21-15 lead with 11:15 left in the half. Senior guard Mfon Udofia and Robert Carter combined for 15 of the team’s first 21 points.
As usual, three pointers kept the Illini in the game. Back-to-back three pointers by senior guard Brandon Paul and sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand cut the Georgia Tech lead to one point. After a three-pointer by Georgia Tech freshman guard Marcus Georges-Hunt with 8:17 remaining, the game was stuck at 29-25 until Yellow Jacket junior guard Jason Morris slammed the ball in on a baseline drive.
The Illini struggled to hold onto the ball, turning it over 12 times in the half. The Fighting Illini went on a 4:45 minute scoreless streak that was finally snapped by a Paul three pointer with 4:03 remaining in the half.
Illinois finally earned their first free throw attempt of the game after an acrobatic and one by sophomore guard Tracy Abrams tying the game with 2:40 remaining in the half. A jumper by Paul gave the Illini their first lead since they led 12-11. Paul had a game-high 10 first half points. The Illini finished the half with a 36-35 lead over the Yellow Jackets.
The Illini came alive to start the second half, as they went on a quick 8-2 run within the first minute and a half to take a 44-37 lead.
Georgia Tech stayed composed, slowing the Illini’s offense down, tying the game on a three pointer from freshman guard Chris Bolden with 13:13 remaining. The Yellow Jackets continued to pour it on Illinois, going on a 17-6 run capped off by a fast break dunk from junior forward Jason Morris giving Georgia Tech a 54-50 lead.
A lay-up, followed by back-to-back three pointers and a high-flying and-one finish by Bertrand got the fans storming as the Illini took a 64-58 lead with 4:48 left in the game. The spectacular play of Bertrand not only caught the eyes of the fans, but his teammate Brandon Paul as well.
“When Joe [Bertrand] came down and hit those couple threes I saw the confidence in his eyes.” Paul said. “One time I think I just ran back because I knew he was gonna shoot it because he made two in a row. And then he had that one loopty loop ridiculous lay-up and you’ll probably see it on Sportscenter tonight. Me and Tyler [Griffey] just laughed because we see that stuff in practice every day, it doesn’t shock us at all.”
Senior Illinois guard D.J. Richardson sealed the game for the Illini after hitting his fourth three pointer of the contest putting the Illini up 71-62 with 2:30 remaining. Illinois finished with 14 three pointers in the game, only two off the school record of 16. It’s the seventh time in eight games the team has hit at least ten three pointers.
Illinois would go onto win by a final of 75-62. With the win, Illinois won its fourth straight ACC/Big Ten Challenge and has the most wins by a Big Ten team in Challenge history with seven. The Big Ten tied the ACC in the Challenge 6-6.
Illinois coach John Groce is happy with the team’s success, but he doesn’t want them losing focus.
“I’ve got a quote ready for them that will be on the practice plane tomorrow,” Groce said. “It says, ‘even if you’re on the right track if you sit still, you’ll get ran over.’ And we’re on the right track. But we don’t wanna sit still because we don’t wanna get ran over.”
With the win, Illinois improves to 8-0 while Georgia Tech falls to 4-2.
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