Asmussen | Illini's De La Rosa proves he belongs in Big Ten

Asmussen | Illini's De La Rosa proves he belongs in Big Ten

Talk all you want about the efforts Saturday by Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The freshman deserves the attention after his off-the-charts performance against Rutgers.

But to me, the play of the game belonged to another big guy: 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa.

With 13:55 left in the second half and the score tied 56-56. De La Rosa seemed to be inside the mind of Rutgers guard Geo Baker.

"I definitely read it," De La Rosa said. "The dudes were actually going to go and redo the exact same action that they beat me off of the first time."

De La Rosa drew Baker in. Then attacked and stole the ball.

That's when the fun started. De La Rosa turned into a point guard, driving the length of the court.

"Being from New York City, the mecca of basketball, everybody is taught to hold their own," De La Rosa said. "It was no different than when I was 14 playing outside in the park."

For a dunk, right? Well, it would have been except for Montez Mathis, who grabbed De La Rosa and spoiled it.

The officials went to the monitor and ruled it a Flagrant 1 against Montez. Two shots for De La Rosa and the ball back to the Illini

The lanes were cleared as De La Rosa went to the line.

"I take over 100 shots every day," De La Rosa said. "I'm actually comfortable getting to the free-throw line, knocking down free throws. That's something I take a lot of pride in. I know a free throw is so valuable. If I can get to the line, it's like free money. You have to have the composure to step up and make the shot."

Observant announcer Stephen Bardo, working the game on BTN, said it was a possible turning point. Good call.

De La Rosa's teammates cheered his steal and sprint.

"They were all proud of me at that time," De La Rosa said.

Illinois didn't trail again in regulation and outscored the Scarlet Knights 13-8 in overtime.

De La Rosa finished with five points and three rebounds in nine quality minutes. Not bad for a guy who had major knee surgery about a year ago.

Interesting that the margin ended up being the same as De La Rosa's point total. Coincidence? I think not.

Beating Rutgers was a bonus. De La Rosa grew up 20 minutes from the campus.

"It's great to beat them," De La Rosa said. "Knowing that we're playing them put a bigger target on their back for myself. I know where they're at. I know that these people are going to see me over the summer and know where I work out. I'm just glad I'm the guy on top."

Big man on campus

De La Rosa could have stayed at Kent State for his senior season. He was playing for the Golden Flashes in the MAC tournament semifinals when he suffered a torn ACL.

He would have been an important piece for a team that is currently 17-6 after Friday's blowout loss at Akron.

De La Rosa watched his former teammates.

"It was a tough game," De La Rosa said. "That's a rivalry. I'm always going to go Flashes for that. They've having a great year. Hopefully, they can pull through and do some good stuff in the MAC."

De La Rosa wanted something more. He wanted a chance to prove himself at the highest level.

"I like it," De La Rosa. "I wanted to come here, impact the team and know I was a piece in that team."

No regrets about the move.

"I'm happy," he said. "I could be playing a whole lot better."

There have been some restrictions on his playing time. As he approaches the anniversary of his injury, the limits are dropping off.

"They've taken care of me this whole year," De La Rosa said. "I can't be anymore thankful."

Lasting role

De La Rosa only gets to spend one season in Champaign-Urbana. But his impact figures to last long beyond March.

During workouts this season, he pushes big guys Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane. Every day.

"I know what Giorgi is capable of," De La Rosa said. "That (35 points against Rutgers) was just the tip of the iceberg. Being that he is so young, he has a lot of room for improvement. I knew Giorgi was skilled and knew who he was before coming here just because he was over in New Jersey."

They are teaching each other in practice.

"I've seen the growth," De La Rosa. "I've seen the downs and I've seen the ups."

He wasn't at all surprised by Bezhanishvili's breakout performance.

"I see it every day," De La Rosa said.

Bezhanishvili and 7-footer Kane have three more years of eligibility.

"They listen," De La Rosa said. "They're brothers to me."

Kane came to De La Rosa and asked for help.

"Of course, 100 percent I embrace him," De La Rosa said. "Why? Because I was once Samba. I needed the help. I needed the extra push."

His season isn't over. The Illini have seven more regular-season games, plus the Big Ten tournament. Who knows how it will end.

The team is winning now, taking three in a row.

"I knew we were good from the moment we stepped in the gym," De La Rosa said. "I also knew we were young and we would need a lot of leadership."

A job he has been more than happy to fill.

"I also know who I am," he said. "I'm Adonis De La Rosa, MAC champion. I've been to the NCAA tournament twice, once with St. John's as well. I've been around winning cultures."

He sees the talent coming together and playing better.

"Right now, we're playing incredible defense," De La Rosa said. "Your man cannot score if he doesn't have the ball. We have definitely tapped into that and dudes are embracing that role."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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