CHAMPAIGN — Late in the second half with Georgia Tech leading Illinois 58-54, Illini coach John Groce threw his arms in the air to wake the nervous Assembly Hall crowd on Wednesday night.
The 12,224 responded.
Joseph Bertrand did, too.
The 6-foot-6, fourth-year junior did what he does. He ignited the crowd himself, going on a personal 10-0 run, sandwiching a pair of layups with two three-pointers to give No. 22 Illinois a lead it wouldn’t relinquish in a 75-62 win against the Yellow Jackets in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Joe,” Groce said. “Joe always competes. He brings big-time energy. I never watch practice film and say Joe is not playing hard. He competed on the backboard and he was good in zone. Made plays on offense and ignited that 21-4 run.”
The coach even learned something about the jumping-jack guard he didn’t know until after the game.
Good friend and teammate Brandon Paul let it slip that Bertrand was a gymnast during his days growing up in Sterling.
“Joe, you were a gymnast?” a startled Groce asked.
“I still have it all,” Bertrand shot back.
He didn’t have to do it all alone, however. Bertrand (three rebounds) and Paul (seven assists, seven rebounds) each scored a game-high 15 points to pace Illinois (8-0). D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey added 14 apiece for the Illini, who have won four in a row in the annual challenge pitting the two basketball-rich conferences.
The Illini’s win helped salvage a split for the Big Ten, which entered the night with a 4-2 lead on the ACC.
Late-night wins by Duke (against Ohio State) and Boston College (against Penn State) made it 6-6.
“Those senior guards are good, they have been for a long time,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “They’re playing with a greater sense of urgency now.”
Georgia Tech entered the game shooting 21 percent from behind the three-point line, but stunned the Illini early, nailing 5 of 11. Illinois mixed a lot of zone with its man-to-man in the second half to limit the Yellow Jackets to just three more threes in a 27-point second half.
Groce said he wouldn’t have been bold enough to predict an 8-0 start to begin his first season at Illinois, but he likes where his team is. And as is often his refrain, he’s not satisfied and neither are his players.
He used a Will Rogers quote to relay his thoughts on his team moving forward.
“Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get ran over,” Groce said. “We’re on right track, but we don’t want to sit still, we’re going to keep getting better.”