UI defense stops center of attention
CHAMPAIGN – Maybe Adebayo Akinkunle won't be a household name after all.
At least not in Illinois' house.
"We wanted to take Bayo out of the game. Brian Johnson and (Jarrod) Gee did a great job doing that," Illini guard Kevin Turner said. "I think it got to his head a little bit, the physical play."
Johnson, Gee and Illinois' band of so-called undersized frontliners put Bradley's 6-foot-8 center in a vise Monday, and their defensive shackling of the Braves' top threat resulted in a 69-59 win at the Assembly Hall.
If you didn't notice much of what Akinkunle did, that's by design. (He was that tall guy in the middle, surrounded and hounded mostly by Johnson.) Thirteen minutes into the game, Akinkunle had as many fouls (three) as points.
"I think he got frustrated a little bit," Bradley guard Eric Roberson said. "I tried to tell him the referees were going to be taking him out of the game early, being that he was the main focus on our team. He was going to have to try to stay away from early fouls. Because when you're on the road, referees will try to do that."
It was partly Johnson's grit – he drew two of the three charging fouls on Akinkunle – and partly a muscling Illini defense, rotated between Gee, Johnson, Victor Chukwudebe, Awvee Storey (briefly) and Rich Beyers (even more briefly).
"We made an effort to keep fresh people (on him)," Illini coach Lon Kruger said. "And BJ did a great job setting the tone early."
Akinkunle was drawn up as the Braves' best scoring threat – he scored 22 in a season-opening win over Montana – and their shot-blocker extraordinaire. He was neither. Akinkunle finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and one block. And four of his team's 16 turnovers.
Johnny "Red" Kerr, watching from press row, was more of a factor.
"His inability to do anything in the first half really hurt us," Bradley coach Jim Molinari said. "They stayed into his body, and he got some charging fouls. Bayo, you know, he's making an adjustment from being a complementary player – not complementary, but a player not counted on as much – to being an impact player. And he's such a good person, he wants it so bad, he just tried a little too hard."
"It was just a tough game," a quiet Akinkunle said. "They played well."
And they played physically. Both Illinois and Bradley credited the game's bruising nature – welcome to Big Ten basketball, Braves – for keeping the visitors under control. The Braves said they don't normally experience such rough-housing.
"... I really didn't think it would be that physical, in a way that we wouldn't be able to get our offense set," Roberson said. "We were running around kind of frantic. They weren't letting us get the ball in there. Illinois just played a great defensive game tonight."
Not perfect, mind you. While paying so much attention to the middle, Illinois watched guard Rob Dye (23 points) go wild.
"I tried to step up when Bayo left," Dye said, "(since) pretty much he's our main guy."
On Monday, he was the only guy. The big guy was missing in action.
"We tried to tell them to drive, but we just got flustered. They played very physical, and we weren't used to that," Molinari said, airing his team's laundry list. "We couldn't cut. And Bayo got flustered. We were one pass and a shot."