If he didn’t know already, John Groce began to realize what he’s up against Friday night in Hawaii.
Whether the rebounding numbers were 51-31 or 44-28 — take your pick — the Rainbow Warriors punished the Illini in the paint.
It took an extraordinary rallying performance by UI guards Brandon Paul (25), Tracy Abrams (22) and D.J. Richardson (16) to rebound from a 44-28 deficit, turn it into a tossup, and haul it out 78-77 on Richardson’s last-second trey in overtime.
“Tracy played a complete game on both ends,” said Groce. Abrams was a workhorse throughout, had five steals and drove to set up Richardson’s winning corner shot.
The oddity of the season so far is that point guard, which Groce has pinpointed as his major recruiting concern, has been well served by the versatile Abrams. Looking ahead, Abrams appears to be the take-charge guy for this and the following two seasons.
Particularly in the first half, he kept the Illini alive when all looked lost. He scored seven straight points shortly after it was 21-7. He scored five points to start the comeback from 44-28 and was in the thick of the late-game give-and-take, and the overtime.
Upon further review
Mark it down as a great win. Then we must also face reality as we review a Tale of Two Halves.
Rigors of the road seemed to cause stage fright among some of the travelers. The Illini missed 11 of their first 13 shots and didn’t reach double figures for nearly 10 minutes. Happily, this wasn’t a Krush Hush repeat. Otherwise our ears would have received a half hour of silence.
The Illini went almost 25 minutes before anyone other than Paul or Abrams scored a field goal. A foul-troubled Tyler Griffey reverted, Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin were overmatched, and Myke Henry has lost his October mojo. Big Vander Joaquim dominated inside while Simeon product Brandon Spearman played the game of his life.
The Illini appeared dead but, after creeping within 57-49, they got two key goals by Egwu and one by Griffey, their only baskets of the game.
Closing the gap down the stretch, it became anybody’s game. Abrams drove to give Illinois its first lead, 61-60, and Paul hit twice before Joaquim tied it 66-66 at the buzzer. Hawaii surged again in OT, but Richardson came alive just in time.
“We got away with one,” Groce said. “You have to give our guys credit because we showed great resolve. We kept swinging and swinging and swinging. Their size wore on us early, but our three perimeter guys were terrific. We need more from the 4s and 5s.”
Always on the move
The world of basketball recruiting is changing so fast it boggles the mind.
On this excursion to the South Seas, Illinois is smacking into some unrecognizable teams.
Hawaii featured athletes from six states and seven foreign countries. Spearman, who prepped at Simeon (which has four new transfers this year), moved from Dayton to junior college on his way to Honolulu. Star center Joaquim began at Eastern Utah, Christian Standhardinger arrived via Germany and the University of Nebraska, Ozren Pavlovic hails from Croatia, and so on.
Now comes a Monday date against USC, and look what coach Kevin O’Neill has done. Of his top nine scorers in a 2-0 getaway, O’Neill has one player, soph Byron Wesley, who enrolled directly from high school.
His totally rebuilt team features two transfers from junior college, two from Wake Forest (Ari Stewart and J.T. Terrell) and one each from Rice, Fordham, Iowa and UC Irvine. These aren’t spare parts. These are the leaders brought in to resurrect a Trojan club that finished 1-17 in the Pac-12 last season.
Make your own interpretation. Mine is this: Once these young athletes start traveling around in summer AAU competition, or arrive from Europe, they become highly mobile. CBSSports’ Jeff Goodman researched the issue and found more than 500 transfers this year alone. Illinois got two of them in Sam McLaurin and Rayvonte Rice.
From the pulpit
When Ron Zook was removed as football coach at Florida, he left behind a loaded squad that later won the national championship.
It isn’t working out quite so well for Illinois. Zook’s 2011 Illini lost their last six Big Ten games, and the number has reached an unlucky 13 ... with no end in sight.
The previous nine came by double figures before a busy Nathan Scheelhaase (20 rushes, 38 passes) broke a six-quarter no-TD spell and pulled the Illini within 20-17 of Purdue on Saturday in Champaign.
It wasn’t that close, not after two stunning 63-yard plays helped Purdue’s 5-6 bowl hopefuls grab 13-3 and 20-10 leads in the third quarter.
Those two breakaways changed a tedious close-to-the-vest duel of field goals.
This marked two straight games in which Tim Banks’ UI defense, even in permitting those two backbreakers, performed to a reasonable standard.
Giving up 20 points these days isn’t awful. But it hurts when you don’t acquire a turnover, and Illinois has gone two games without one.
“We preach turnovers,” Banks said, “but we’re not getting them of late.”
Purdue pounced on three of six UI bobbles. They must have better preachers.
Give columnist Loren Tate the business at email@example.com