CHAMPAIGN — Brandon Paul limped around after Saturday’s 74-55 win against No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday, looking more like Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — a close friend of his — than a guy who had just scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Illinois’ 6-foot-4 guard had two ice bags wrapped around his left leg and another on his right knee after his 11th-ranked Illini won for the second time this season against a Top 10 foe.
“I got banged a couple times today, hit the floor,” Paul said, while assuring that he’s fine.
Paul wasn’t the only Illini sacrificing his body Saturday against the Buckeyes. Tyler Griffey jumped on the floor for a loose ball in front of his bench to call a timeout. D.J. Richardson (nine points, four rebounds, three steals) crashed into the scorer’s table to save a possession for Illinois (14-2, 1-1 Big Ten).
Across the board, Illinois players disregarded their bodies for the greater good. Thursday’s practice after the loss to Purdue, in which coach John Groce said his team was out-toughed, can be credited for Saturday’s effort.
Thursday’s workout “wasn’t for the meek and timid,” according to Groce.
“The intensity level was pretty high just like all the other practices, but I think it was upped a notch because we had that little taste in our mouth about Purdue; we didn’t play as tough as we needed to,” Paul said.
Saturday was a different story. Illinois, which had been outrebounded by an average of 13 in the last three games, outrebounded Ohio State 40-30. Groce’s team forced 16 turnovers and scored 17 points as a result of the miscues.
“I was disappointed with our toughness on Wednesday night for the first time all year,” Groce said. “We put a couple guys on front street in regard to that over the last couple of days and they responded at a high level.”
The sense of urgency coupled with Illinois’ execution against Ohio State (11-3, 1-1) thrilled the first sellout crowd of the season.
Sophomore center Nnanna Egwu scored a career-high 16 points to go along with eight rebounds, while Tracy Abrams (13 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals) and Joseph Bertrand (12 points, five rebounds, three blocks) joined Egwu and Paul in double figures.
Preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas scored 24 to lead the Buckeyes.
The win was the icing on the cake for Groce. The effort and the resolve, though, are what had the former Ohio State assistant coach giddy afterward.
“I felt like when I laid my head down on my pillow after the game, I wanted to say, like I did after we got beat by Missouri … I laid my head down that night and I said ‘Those are my guys,’ ” said Groce, who spent eight seasons as an assistant to Ohio State coach Thad Matta at Xavier, Butler and Ohio State. “I just wanted to feel that way tonight, regardless of the score.”