CHAMPAIGN — Late in the first half of Illinois’ 89-64 win against St. Francis (Brooklyn), Illini senior Tyler Griffey sniffed out a Terriers’ inbounds play. His deflection went out of bounds, but he laughed as coach John Groce and his teammates applauded the effort.
A minute later, he bullied into the lane for an offensive rebound and put-back basket, and the grin on his face returned.
The 6-foot-9 forward’s got an easy smile. It just hasn’t been on display too often on the floor during his Illinois career.
Griffey and the Illini had plenty to be happy about after a blowout win that will make today’s flight to Hawaii an enjoyable one.
Griffey finished with 17 points, one shy of the career high he set at Michigan last year, and displayed an array of skills he hasn’t made use of since his days as a star at Lafayette High in Wildwood, Mo.
“It’s been a while,” Griffey said after being asked how long it’s been since he’s had this much fun playing the game. “I’m enjoying it, enjoying the ride, enjoying my last year and just taking it one step at a time. I feel so much better. It feels good to be out there.”
Griffey also grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and came away with a steal.
“I think he’s making more of an effort to be a better defender and that’s what our team needs for him moving forward for us to reach our potential,” Groce said.
It’s been a collective effort for the Illini, who moved to 2-0 under their new head coach and they’ve made it look relatively easy in doing so. Tracy Abrams (15 points), Brandon Paul (14) and Nnanna Egwu (10) joined Griffey in double figures for Illinois, which delivered 17 assists against eight turnovers.
“Overall, I thought our shot selection was really good,” Groce said after his team shot 32 for 65 (49.2 percent) from the floor. “When you take good shots and your offense works really hard to get good shots and you’ve got personnel who can get and make shots like we do, then you take advantage. And that’s what happened tonight.”
Monday’s effort and Illinois’ focus is worthy of praise considering they boarded a bus for Chicago immediately after the game with a flight to Hawaii scheduled for this morning.
Griffey’s hoping his hot hand follows him off the mainland.
A field goal in Friday’s game at Hawaii or at any point during the Maui Invitational, which begins Monday, would make Hawaii the 37th state in which the well-traveled 22-year-old has made a basket.
“He’s real excited, he’s traveled more than anybody in here,” Groce said. “This guy’s been about every place. My wife (Allison) is jealous of Griff because she likes to travel.”