CHAMPAIGN — After Tyler Griffey’s three-pointer with 4.4 seconds remaining sent Illinois to a 63-62 win against Gardner-Webb, Illinois coach John Groce let out a sigh of relief, looking toward the sky.
Shortly thereafter, Groce made his way toward the Bulldogs’ bench for the postgame handshake with coach Chris Holtmann. The two were teammates at Taylor (Ind.) University and Holtmann was a member of Groce’s staff at Ohio from 2008-10.
The two shared a long embrace while holding a brief conversation.
“Obviously, I’ve got a lot of affection and care for John and his family and the staff here. This is a hard game to play for a variety of reasons. We never would have scheduled it if it was scheduled prior to John getting the job,” Holtmann said. “He was just really complimentary of our team and our approach and felt like he got one that was in the balance and maybe certainly could have gone either way. We just kind of had a private moment there.”
Holtmann is in his third season at Gardner-Webb and in the process of rebuilding that program. Already this season, the Bulldogs won at DePaul and led by 20 points at Iowa before faltering late.
“Really proud of Chris, he’s done an outstanding job from where they were his first year and where they are now, I’m really proud of him and his staff,” Groce said.
Holtmann can see Groce’s fingerprint already being placed on the Illinois program.
“Illini Nation has seen what those of us that are close to John and his staff know and that is his kids are going to play with great confidence, they’re going to play really loose and aggressive,” Holtmann said. “They’re going to be in attack mode and I think everyone has seen that in this early part of the season. They will get better, I really feel they’ll get better. They’ll take some lumps as every team does, but they will continue to improve and get better.”
One of the keys for Illinois staying in the game when Gardner-Webb took an eight-point lead was the steady play of fourth-year junior Joseph Bertrand.
The reserve swingman scored seven first-half points and provided energy when Illinois appeared to be playing uninspired.
“He loves to compete. Tonight his energy level, he was just ready,” Groce said. “I looked back at the bench because we had a substitution pattern and I said ‘Don’t take him out.’ You could just feel it, he was ready to go and making plays at both ends.”
Groce said Bertrand had a great practice Saturday. At Sunday’s shootaround, he was the sharpest Illini in attendance.
“I was just able to come in and bring energy and get the team going,” Bertrand said.
Bertrand’s contribution was a necessity considering the rough outing sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams endured. Abrams didn’t score, turned the ball over four times and had two rebounds.
“He’s been such a big part of what we’ve been doing to this point. I’d be shocked if he’s not better on Wednesday night,” Groce said. “He’s a really competitive kid and I know he’s disappointed. More than anything it was that I necessarily chose to sit him, it was Bertrand was playing so well and (D.J.) Richardson and (Brandon) Paul were making plays and I just stuck with Joe. Nothing in terms of meaning he’s not going to be a big part of what we’re doing moving forward. He’s made some big plays for us. We wouldn’t be in the situation we are right now without Tracy Abrams.”
Abrams started the second half but sat out the final 16 minutes. It was the first time in 20 games the Chicago Mount Carmel product, who was averaging 14.3 points entering Sunday, was held scoreless.
Illinois had three days off after playing four games in six days in Hawaii. Gardner-Webb was coming off a similar demanding slate.
The Bulldogs played at home in North Carolina on Nov. 14, played at DePaul the next day, at Iowa two days later then traveled in Mexico on Tuesday and Wednesday before taking on the Illini.
“This has been an unbelievable last 10 days in terms of our travel schedule and where we’ve played and who we’ve played,” Holtmann said. “I’m really proud of our kids because I think we had some growth in some areas and that’s important.”
Groce didn’t cite travel for his team not playing up to expectations Sunday.
“We have no excuses. When they put a game on our schedule and whatever time the ball tips, we have to be ready to play,” Groce said. “We don’t have any excuses, that’s not how we operate, our guys know that.”
Illinois signee MALCOLM HILL is off to a strong start in his senior season.
The swingman from Belleville East helped the Lancers win the Centralia Thanksgiving Tournament on Saturday, beating the host school 53-42. Hill chosen as the tournament’s MVP as his team finished 4-0.
He scored 24 points in the win against Centralia and added 10 points in a 66-52 win against Jerseyville earlier Saturday.
Hill and Belleville East are back in action Dec. 4 at Edwardsville.
— Marcus Jackson and Matt Daniels