CHAMPAIGN (AP) — Brandon Paul scored 14 points and No. 13 Illinois earned a 72-64 win against Western Carolina on Tuesday.
Western Carolina tied the game at 54-54 with 6:15 left.
Illinois guard D.J. Richardson hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions for a 62-56 lead. Richardson finished with 13 points.
After a Western Carolina turnover, Illini guard Tracy Abrams made two free throws and a basket on the following possession for a 66-56 lead.
Guard Preston Ross paced the Catamounts (3-6) with 17 points. James Sinclair added 13 points.
The Illini (9-0) play at No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday.
Illinois was 3 of 14 from the field to start the game, but the Illini stretched the lead to 32-22 at halftime with a 15-8 run to end the half.
No. 13 Illinois 44, Western Carolina 40 — 11:52 second half
Nnanna Egwu was all over Tawaski King, denying him in the post early in the half. Dustin Ford yelled “Great job, big fella!” Then King stepped back and hit a short jumper. They’ll live with that.
Tyler Griffey is telling the officials he’s getting fouled on ever rebound. He might be right, they’re not calling it, though.
Egwu has been open in the post a few times, but teammates haven’t delivered the ball to him. So the big man stepped out and rattled home the first three-pointer of his career.
Western Carolina leading scorer Trey Sumler didn’t score his first point until early in the second half. Sumler averages 17.6 points. He’s up to eight points now.
The Illini are again struggling from the free throw line. They’re 5 for 9.
Tracy Abrams looked over to the bench early in the half and asked out of the game. He limped off and was checked on by athletic trainer Paul Schmidt.
He was fine and he’s back in the game.
Joseph Bertrand tried to reverse dunk an alley-oop from D.J. Richardson, but he was rejected by the rim. It would have brought the house down. Instead, Western Carolina converted it into a three-pointer at the other end.
Western Carolina tied the game at 40, before Joseph Bertrand hit one of his floaters. Then Griffey hit a long jumper to get the lead back.
Illini getting handled in the post, going to have to make some adjustments down there on the defensive end.
This is a nervous crowd here at the Assembly Hall, and with good reason. This is about the time Illinois went on its run last week against Georgia Tech. We’ll see if that happens tonight.
No. 13 Illinois 32, Western Carolina 22: Halftime
Mike Shaw got some early playing time for the Illini and he went all Myke Henry, firing up a three on his first touch. It worked, he banked home the trey.
D.J. Richardson hit one after him to get the Illini rolling after the slow start.
“That’s all right, good shot,” Groce told Myke Henry after he missed a three-pointer.
Western Carolina went on a 7-0 run when Brandon Paul went to the bench for a rst midway through the half.
Paul leads the team with 10 points. His perimeter defense also led to an air-balled three-pointer from Trey Sumler as the shot clock expired toward the end of the half.
Illinois shot 12 for 35 (34.3 percent) from the field in the first half. They were 4 for 14 (28.6 percent) from three.
Sam McLaurin had as strong a half as he has in an Illinois uniform. The transfer from Coastal Carolina had four rebounds — all offensive — and added four points.
Myke Henry’s got five points off the bench and he’s done a lot of those little things, too. He’s got two offensive boards, a block and a steal in eight minutes.
Ford asked him to bring energy, and he’s done that.
Western Carolina shot 6 for 22 (27.3 percent) in the half and 3 of 11 (27.3 percent) from three.
The Illini have played good defense. The shots just aren’t falling like they usually are. That could be a problem on Saturday.
Illinos has had opportunities in the post, but they’ve been soft with the ball. It’s either gotten slapped away, or they flat out drop it. Got to get better down there.
Brandon Boggs led the way with 10 points off the bench.
Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole is sitting courtside. Three women’s basketball players: Karisma Penn, Kierra Morris and Adrienne GodBold are also taking in the action from the seats near the bench. Some folks take exception to me mentioning that.
No. 13 Illinois 9, Western Carolina 5 — 11:57 first half
The first play of the game, Illinois his Nnanna Egwu cutting to the basket for a layup, but he fumbled the pass.
"It was right there, it was perfect," Groce said to his staff.
Illinois got steals and buckets on the next two possesions. One by Brandon Paul, which ended up being a three-point play and another by Tracy Abrams.
Each team had four turnovers at the first media timeout. Brandon Paul had two steals early.
Ford was asking for energy from Myke Henry when the sophomore checked in five minutes into the game.
Joseph Bertrand is still hot. He buried a three-pointer on his first possession after entering the game. He got into the lane the next time down and fired an errant pass at Myke Henry. "Slow down a little bit, Joe, you're all right," Groce told him afterward.
After a call went against the Illini early in the game, Groce argued it then asked his assistants what they thought. He relayed the message to the official. "These guys got your back, they said you were right," Groce told the official.
Sam McLaurin is your early game MVP. The fifth-year senior has been a monster on the boards. He's got three rebounds early, all on the offensive glass. There have been ample opportunitie for offensive boards. Illinois is shooting 3 for 14. They started 2 for 2. The Illini are 1 for 6 from three.
The Catamounts are 1 for 9 from the floor and 1 of 5 from three.
Be glad this one isn't on TV. It's been ugly so far.
Pretty good crowd, they need something to cheer about.
See you at the half.
Western Carolina at Illinois — Tipoff
Illinois' starters tonight are the same: Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson. Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu.
Ford and Hunter met on the sideline and shared a hug and spoke for a few moments before the tip. Ford pointed out his family to Hunter and they shared a few moments together. It was the first time they had spoken to one another all day.
This game was part of the Black Friday ticket package the DIA offered. The folks in Section C, who bought those tickets, are here.
The rest of the building is filling up slowly.
Mike LaTulip and Tracy Abrams shared a couple of laughs with one another before the national anthem. They're loose
Sponge Bob is leading the cheers from the Krush seats on the sideline. He's across from the WCU bench.
Brandon Paul's parents, who are always here, are not tonight. They're at younger brother Darius' game against Michigan tonight. Darius is a freshman at Western Michigan. That game is on TV (BTN). This one is not.
Western Carolina at Illinois — 15 minutes before tipoff
Looking for Tracy Abrams to have a bounce-back game. The sophomore point guard has struggled since the team returned from Hawaii. Spoke with Abrams for a few minutes yesterday at practice and he didn’t seem shaken at all by his recent struggles.
“Some game are good, some aren’t,” Abrams said with a chuckle. “I’ll be fine.”
Groce said the biggest problem for Abrams is he’s almost trying too hard. He just needs to relax a little bit.
“He’s a competitive kid. He cares a great deal. Sometimes Tracy’s his hardest critic because he wants to play perfect and there’s no such thing. I don’t think he’s headstrong from the standpoint that he’s not a good listener, that he’s not coachable. He’s the opposite of that. He wants to be really good,” Groce said. “He’s got to understand its not a game of perfect, basketball’s not a game of perfect. I think he’s got to let go of those plays and learn from them. He watches them on film. He’s not going to play perfect basketball, that’s not gonna happen. I think just having the mindset to get to the next play and trying to make simple plays, making sure he doesn’t predetermine his reads, that he kind of takes what the defense gives him and plays at the speed and gear he wants to play at based on what he sees. He’s shown flashes of doing that really, really well. He’s had a couple instances that I thin he’s tried to make a couple homerun plays of the perfect play, the pin-point pass. He’s just kind of got to let it come to him. He’s gotten a lot better from where he started that first week of practice.”
Abrams is also a little bit taller than most people realize. He’s listed at 6-1,might actually be 6-2. Or maybe I was just having a short day.
Ibby Djimde is your game poster tonight. Maybe the Illini can get a big enough lead to let the big man get some action tonight. He’s played 10 minutes this season and hasn’t scored.
The three Illinois assistants are wearing blue shirts tonight. Special assistant Brandon Miller and director of operations Mark Morris didn’t get the memo.
Brian Barnhart is dancing. Let me rephrase that: He’s attempting to dance.
Jerry Hester has a goatee, that’s new.
A member of the Orange Krush is wearing a Sponge Bob outfit. I’m told he’s a fifth-year senior. I guess you’ve got to get that stuff out of your system before you head into the real world.
Be back at the tip.
Western Carolina at Illinois — 30 minutes before tipoff
It’s been a strange couple of weeks for the Illinois coaching staff. In the championship game at the Maui Invitational, John Groce was coaching against good friend Brad Stevens. Groce and Stevens were on staff together at Butler under Thad Matta.
The following game, Groce was pitted against Gardner-Webb, which is coached by another good friend and college teammate Chris Holtmann.
Tuesday’s game was another with ties among the coaching staffs.
Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter was Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford’s head coach when Ford was a four-year starter at Ohio from 1998-01.
Ford also coached on Hunter’s staff at Western Carolina from 2006-08.
“Obviously I’m pretty close with Coach. I’ve known him since I was 12, 13 years old,” Ford said. “He recruited my brother (Bradley coach Geno Ford), he recruited me. We both played for him, both worked for him. I follow them anyway, so knowing their personnel and having familiarity with the program was good.”
The Gardner-Webb game and the Western Carolina game were scheduled before Ford and the rest of the coaching staff arrived at Illinois. If it were up to them, those games wouldn’t happen.
“You don’t want to play the guys you’re rooting for. When we’re not playing them, I’m rooting for Western Carolina and they’re doing the same for us,” Ford said.
Ford said he hasn’t talked with Hunter at all today. Hunter’s real intense and won’t want to be bothered before the game. They’ll get together for a few minutes after the game.
I’ll be back, got to get Loren connected to the Internet. That’s always a challenge.
Western Carolina at Illinois — 45 minutes before tipoff
Both team are on the floor going through their pregame drills. Dustin Ford is working with the Illinois big men.
This is a big game for Ford. Not only does he have the scout, he’s playing against the coach he played for at Ohio in Western Carolina’s Larry Hunter.
I’ll catch up with Ford in a few minutes to get his thoughts on matching wits with his former teacher.
One of the big stories, or THE, big story in college basketball this week was the passing of Rick Majerus. Majerus took a leave of absence from St. Louis prior to the season to deal with some health issues. He died of heart failure Saturday at 64.
Former Illini guard Sean Harrington spent one season as the director of basketball operations under Majerus at St. Louis before assuming the same position at his alma mater. A lot of the stories you’ve ben hearing on television and reading about Majerus in recent days is exactly who he was, Harrington said.
“I spent one year with him at St. Louis. Everybody knows the basketball side and everything you hear is true. By far, he’s the best basketball mind I’ve ever been around,” Harrington said.
“He took us on a staff retreat that first season at St. Louis. Every single person on that staff had never worked together, it was his first year. We went up to Milwaukee for three days and talked terminology and strategy and what he talked about up there was unbelievable. I had never heard so much knowledge. He never looked at notes, everything was off the top of his head. At one point he said we were going to talk about the 11 different ways we guard a ball screen and he went through 11 different ways and not once did he look down at a note.”
We’ll have more form Harrington on Majerus in tomorrow’s News-Gazette and on IlliniHQ.
The doors are open here and the Orange Krush is filing down to their seats on the floor. Probably expect a crowd in the 12,000 range again tonight. Western Carolina doesn’t excite many folks, but an 8-0 home team averaging close to 80 points a game should.
Be back in a few.
Western Carolina at Illinois — 90 minutes before tipoff
Good evening, folks, Marcus Jackson joining you from courtside for tonight’s tuneup leading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 10 Gonzaga.
The game at Spokane will be 13th-ranked Illinois’ toughest to date this season.
The Illini vaulted up from No. 22 to 13 in the AP poll this week and up to No 14 in the coaches’ poll after last week’s win against Georgia Tech. It’s a big jump for John Groce’s unbeaten squad, but there are so many teams ahead of them who struggled. We had Illinois at No. 15 in our poll.
There are still plenty out there who aren’t yet believers in Illinois after eight games. CBS Sports senior college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman listed the 20 teams who remained unbeaten entering the week into four categories — the real deal, jury’s still out, not buying and frauds. He listed the Illini as “Not buying” and said Brandon Paul and Co. were headed to the NIT this year.
Hope you caught our story on Devin Langford today. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about him early in the season and it appears he’s finding a role with this team off the bench. John Groce has been very complimentary of the redshirt freshman in recent days.
As usual, Tyler Griffey was the first person on the floor about 2 hours, 15 minutes before tipoff. The senior worked his way out to the three-point line and beyond, draining a bunch of shots from NBA range in a display that impressed the heck out of Ed Bond.
Brandon Paul, who arrived to the arena on a scooter, was the next player out.
Illinois will wear orange uniforms tonight. The Illini are 1-0 in that uniform this season.
Hopping on the pregame show now. Be back soon.