Bezhanishvili's record-setting game guides Illini to 3rd straight win

Bezhanishvili's record-setting game guides Illini to 3rd straight win

CHAMPAIGN — Chants of "Giorgi, Giorgi, Giorgi!" raining down from the seats at State Farm Center have become increasingly more common this season. Saturday afternoon was no exception.

In fact, Illinois fans had even more reason to cheer for freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili. That love is reciprocated in kind. There was no way Bezhanishvili, who had some extra media obligations right after Saturday's 99-94 Illinois overtime win against Rutgers, wasn't going to make his way around the arena and through the Orange Krush.

Bezhanishvili delivered high five after high five. Accepted a folded paper hat from one of the Krush. Stopped to sign an autograph. Celebrated with what's been an adoring fan base pretty much since they were first introduced to the native of Rustavi, Georgia.

For good reason. Bezhanishvili put up a career-high 35 points against Rutgers — 35 points Illinois certainly needed against the hot-shooting Scarlet Knights.

"We got on the big boy's back and rode those shoulders for 29 second-half (and overtime) points," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

Bezhanishvili's 35 points were also record breaking. The most scored by an Illinois freshman in a single game since Deon Thomas' 34 in a 120-116 double overtime victory against Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Dec. 3, 1990.

Thomas, who was on the radio call for Saturday's game, had a front row seat to see his record broken. Illinois' all-time leading scorer was also the one to let Bezhanishvili know he was the new record holder.

"I said, 'I'm sorry. It wasn't intentional,'" Bezhanishvili said after the game.

No apology necessary according to Thomas.

"I'm like, 'Dog, there's no need for you to be sorry. That's what you're supposed to do,'" Thomas said.

Being able to share that moment with Bezhanishvili meant a lot to Thomas. One of the proudest moments of his Illini career, he said, was when Eddie Johnson called him in congratulations after he broke Johnson's then-program record for career points.

"I want the best players on this court — guys that really care about it and love this university the way I do," Thomas continued. "If he can do that and break the records while they stand, I love it."

Bezhanishvili had just six points at halftime on 2 of 5 shooting. He bounced back in the final 25 minutes and missed just a single shot on 13 attempts in the second half and overtime for his record-setting performance.

"I really let my teammates down in the first half," Bezhanishvili said. "Coach told me that in front of everybody at halftime. He said, 'Giorgi, you've got bad energy. You've got to change your energy.' Usually I bring good energy. I told him, 'I've got you coach. I will change my energy.' That's what I did, and that's what happened."

While the 35-point performance was Bezhanishvili's best since arriving at Illinois, it still fell short of his all-time career high.

"I think my career high was 46 — the best in youth league back home," he said. "But the competition's not that good, so that's not really an accomplishment. To do it here against the best competition in the nation was a great feeling. ... I usually don't score that much."

Bezhanishvili didn't do much scoring in his one year of high school basketball at The Patrick School in New Jersey last season. The 6-foot-9 forward was the Celtics' fourth-leading scorer in 2017-18, putting up just eight points per game. He had just six offers, with Minnesota and Seton Hall his only other high-major looks.

"Actually, Rutgers' coaches talked to our coaches," Bezhanishvili said. "They said they didn't have a scholarship for me. That was pretty funny. I played in New Jersey. Nobody really looked at me. That don't matter. You just keep growing and keep working every day. That's what I do. I work, and then things like this happen. It just pays off. Work pays off."

Bezhanishvili's averaging 12.2 points and a team-leading five rebounds for Illinois. He's the Illini's third-leading scorer behind Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu, who had 17 and 12 points, respectively, Saturday against Rutgers. Bezhanishvili, though, is looking more and more like a recruiting steal for the Illini.

"For a young man that didn't have a lot of recruitment, I think he's proven he's a pretty good player," said Underwood, who regularly discounts individual player rankings. "I thought he'd be a phenomenal passer and he still is in the pinch post because of his IQ and feel, but he's blossomed into a really good low-post player. He can go both ways. His feet are phenomenal. We knew he had good feet. It pays to take dance. Now, he starts making free throws and he becomes a guy that's a difficult guard because you can't foul him."

Rutgers didn't have much of an answer defensively. The Scarlet Knights threw multiple looks at the Illinois big man with the same amount of success — not much.

"He was a real difficult matchup, and he had it going," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "I thought we did a good job on their guards. Their guards have been killing people, but obviously our defense needs to be better against a team like that."

Bezhanishvili credits his teammates for both getting him the ball more on the block and for instilling a different level of confidence in his game.

"Maybe in high school I wasn't that confident to play," Bezhanishvili said. "Now, my teammates give me confidence. All of them give me confidence like, 'Giorgi, you've got it. Let's go.' My teammates are huge with that. I just want to thank them. That's my new family here."