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FINAL: Illinois 85, Gonzaga 74

Brandon Paul scored 35 points and No. 13 Illinois rallied past No. 10 Gonzaga in another statement win for first-year coach John Groce.

Paul dominated in the second half as Illinois beat a Top 10 nonconference opponent on the road for the first time in 26 years.

"We saw one of the more special performances of the young college basketball season," former Illini Stephen Bardo said on the ESPN2 broadcast.

More coming on HQ.

No. 13 Illinois 65, No. 10 Gonzaga 59 — 10:15 second half

The Illini opened the half on fire, hitting their first five shots, including a couple of threes that forced Mark Few to call a timeout.

The people here love Brandon Paul’s game. “He’s such a big guard, and he’s so good,” a fan behind me said.

John Stockton’s jersey hangs from the rafters here. The NBA Hall of Famer is in the building. His son David is a junior here. David is a former walkon and he’s got freakishly long arms just like his dad.

I’m told they’re showing plenty of John Stockton during the broadcast.

Illini ill-advised fouls are keeping the Zags in it.

Gonzaga will spend the last 11:16 of regulation in the bonus.

No Bulldog has more than two fouls. McLaurin has four for Illinois. Griffey and Egwu each have three.

A guy dressed in a Where’s Waldo outfit just missed a halfcourt shot for $1,200. He hit all backboard. Tyler Griffey just did that from the three-point line. Never seen Tyler miss a shot that bad.

Fans here are still very loud, but they’re nervous.

Tight deadline. Got to roll.

No. 10 Gonzaga 41, No. 13 Illinois 41 — Halftime

All things considered, Illinois has to feel pretty darn good going into the locker room all tied up. Big-time fadeaway by Tyler Griffey over Kelly Olynyk to end the half.

Really impressive on the part of Illinois hanging in there after the hot Gonzaga start. Groce said they weren’t tough against Western Carolina. I think this qualifies as tough.

Brandon Paul (18 points) has really taken over. Something people have wanted to see more of from him is taking the ball to the basket, and he has done that, scoring and drawing fouls.

Paul is in one of those zones. If a leaning three goes in off the glass, it’s your night. They’re going to need more from the other guys, however.

Brandon Paul and the Gonzaga turnovers have been the story. Illinois forced 12 turnovers and scored 16 points off those thurnovers. The Illini only gave it away five times.

Gonzaga made 5 of their last 12 shots after starting 9 for 11. They’re shooting 61 percent.

Illinois started 4 for 14 but are at 15 for 34 (44 percent) and 5 of 13 from three (39 percent).

Joseph Bertrand has seven points. D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams each have five.

The guards appear to be able to beat their man off the dribble whenever they want. They key is finishing once they get there. Illinois has missed a couple of bunnies.

Gonzaga has to cool off at some point, right? The problem is they’ve been getting uncontested looks from close. It’s not hard to shoot a high percentage that way.

Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin, both with two fouls. The lack of frontcourt depth will be a serious issue. We knew that coming in. The Gonzaga bigs are really big. Karnowski’s slow, might be able to beat him in the post.

“Take his whistle,” is what the GU students chanted after the Zags were whistled for 3 seconds for a second time.

John Groce went nuts after Tyler Griffey was called for over-the back on his tip in. Surprised he didn’t get a technical. Thought he might get another one when Myke Henry was called for a charge.

No. 10 Gonzaga 26, No. 13 Illinois 18 — 9:31 first half

Not the start that Illinois needed at all, falling behind 8-0 early. They’ve been able to turn the Bulldogs over, which has saved this one from getting out of hand early.

The Zags can’t miss. They made 9 of their first 11 shots. Illinois started 4 for 14, but have kind of settled down. The defense has turned into points and they’ll need to keep it up on that end.

Gonzaga has turned it over six times, leading to eight Illinois points.

Myke Henry has spent some time guarding Elias Harris. The sophomore hasn’t been afraid to mix it up with the big German.

To say this is a raucous environment wouldn’t be doing it justice. This place is bananas.

“This is the biggest game ever, I’ve never seen the students so pumped up,” said a lady sitting behind me.

Brandon Paul has kind of taken over for the Illini. The senior has eight and he’s gotten to the basket when he wants. They need more of that to score and also to maybe get some of the Zags big men in foul trouble.

Sam McLaurin just put a serious post move on Przemek Karnowski. He could be key.

John Groce all over Myke Henry after Karnowski’sand-1. Henry missed a rotation.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga — Tipoff

The Kennel has been blessed by Father Hightower. The school’s pastor made the sign of the cross to all sides of the arena before the tip. That’s the only time it’s been even remotely quiet in here.

Illinois will go with its regular lineup: Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu.

Gonzaga counters with Gary Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos, Guy Landry Edi, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Four countries represented there.

D.J. Richardson made the half-courter prior to the game. Brandon Paul couldn’t get one to go down. They do that all the time.

This is a sellout. I’m told the women’s game here last week against Stanford was also a sellout. They love hoops up here.

I spotted an Adam Morrison Charlotte Bobcats jersey in the crowd. That guy could score.

Some students took to the floor during the starting lineups and made a tunnel for the players to run through. This place is nuts.

I’ll be back midway through the half with an update.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga — 25 minutes before tipoff

Former Illinois coach Ron Zook weighed in on the terrible tragedy that happened early this morning outside Dallas where former Illini Jerry Brown was killed in a car accident that has landed Josh Brent in prison on an intoxicated manslaughter charge.

Former Illinois coach Ron Zook said Brent, a third-year player who made the first start of his career in the opener against the New York Giants, was trying to help Brown make it in the NFL. Brown joined the Cowboys in
October after he was released by the Indianapolis Colts.
“It was Jerry’s dream, and Josh was trying to help him any way he could,” Zook said.
Zook said he spoke with Brent’s agent, Peter Schaffer, who said he had made contact with Brent.
“He said Josh was distraught, and he didn’t care about himself or what was happening to him,” Zook said. “All he cared about was Jerry’s family.”

No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga — 30 minutes before tipoff

Former News-Gazette Illinois basketball beat writer Paul Klee, a Gonzaga alum, checks in with his thoughts from San Francisco.

Klee picked Illinois to win. He says they will get hot from the outside and the Zags won’t be able to keep up. Klee also says it will be the only game Gonzaga loses until February.

I picked Gonzaga to win in a close one. The only other time I picked against Illinois this year, it beat USC by 30, so you’ve got that working in your favor. Tyler Griffey gave me a hard time for that one.

Former Illini Stephen Bardo has the call for ESPN2 tonight alongside Roxy Bernstein. Bardo cut his teeth at ESPN covering the West Coast Conference and he says The Kennel is his favorite place in the country to call a game.

“I’ve covered Gonzaga more than any team in the country, including Illinois, so this is just like home for me,” Bardo said. “This will be the toughest place Illinois will play all year, and that includes the Breslin Center and the other venues in the Big Ten.”

Just met Randy Buhr, an Illinois alum who is the senior associate director of athletics at Washington State. Buhr is wearing an Illinois sweatshirt and said he was giddy about having Illinois playing so close to Pullman. He made the 70-plus mile drive from the Washington State campus and says he’ll be in Seattle in a couple of years when the football team plays at Washington.

By the way, Sean Harrington did an excellent job breaking this one down for us in The News-Gazette and on HQ yesterday. Check that out.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga — 60 minutes before tipoff

The student section has filled up. They’re all wearing read and they’re really, really loud.

One guy is wearing a Gumby costume. Another is dressed like Will Ferrell’s character from the movie “Elf”. They are right on top of the floor, going to be a real tough environment, for sure.

Gonzaga fans have been having fun the with Brandon Paul-created #JoeTales hashtag on Twitter this week. The student fan bases have traded jabs back and forth all week. One female Gonzaga student in the front row has a sign that reads “What’s your story? #JoeTales”.

Just talked to assistant coach Dustin Ford and he could stop raving about Gonzaga’s big men. He says they’ve got a lot of pros on the front line, going to be a real tough matchup for them. They feel like if they can knock down shots, they’ll have a chance here.

The coaches are also giving me grief for my choice of shirt tonight. Without thinking, I grabbed a blue and red-themed shirt to wear tonight. Oops.

They know this place is going to be nuts tonight. This is Gonzaga’s toughest test so far this season, too.

The Illini will stay here in Spokane tonight. The coaches will break down the flim and show it to the players in the morning before they fly back to Champaign. They want to be on to Norfolk State by the time they arrive home tomorrow. The reason for staying tonight is to maintain a consistent sleep pattern with such a quick turnaround between games.

We’ll be back.

No. 13 Illinois at No.10 Gonzaga — 90 minutes before tipoff

Usually Tyler Griffey is the first player from either team on the floor taking shots before the game. The Illini aren’t here yet, so Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk is the only guy here taking shots right now.

The 7-footer (and his hair) shot about 50 free throws — he made a bunch of them — and now he’s going around the arc shooting threes. He hasn’t made too many of those, you might not have to worry about him making many of those tonight, though he ht a huge three-pointer down the stretch up the road at Washington State the other night to help the Bulldogs move to 9-0, the best start in the program’s Division I history.

They’ve got good taste in music here. GOOD Music’s “Clique” is playing at The Kennel. I listed to that on my walk over from my hotel.

One question I’ve gotten a lot since the season has started is about Brandon Paul’s future as a pro. He’s certainly been one of the better players in the country through the first month and he’s opened some eyes.

“It’s all about consistency with that guy. I’m kind of in wait-and-see mode,” said Jon Givorny of DraftExpress.com. “He’s had huge games then kind of goes to sleep for a month.”

Paul’s talent has never been questioned. His gifts are evident and no matter how the season plays out, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make money playing the game. Most of the NBA folks are waiting to see if Paul can maintain this pace through the Big Ten season.

“He’s on the radar, even if he doesn’t play to his potential,” Givorny said. “Guys like him will get opportunities. Even if he goes undrafted, people are going to watch him because he’s so talented.”

Givorny compared Paul to Rodney Stuckey.

“You never know what you’re getting with him, but when he’s on, he’s a very good NBA player,” Givorny said.

Stephen Bardo is here. I’m going to chat with him and jump on the pregame show with Steve Kelly. I’ll be back in a bit.

No. 13 Illinois at No. 10 Gonzaga — 2 hours before tipoff

Good evening, folks. Marcus Jackson joining you from the left coast for tonight’s Top-15 battle between the Illini and the Bulldogs.

This is the biggest game of the season to date for each team. The students here are pumped up for Illinois’ first visit to the McCarthey Athletic Center, or The Kennel. They’ve camped out overnight in Tent City for the right to score prime tickets for the game. More than 100 tents have been set up and up to seven students can occupy a single tent.

Illinois director of basketball operations Mark Morris made a trip outside the arena during the team’s shootaround today and was amazed at the turnout.

If you haven’t been to Spokane, I recommend making a trip some time. It’s wonderful and the people here are even better.

Matt Goodwin own a few bars and restaurants in the city, he and his people showed me a good time last night.

Stephen Bardo, who’s calling the game for ESPN2 tonight, and Jerry Hester love it up here, too.

Lot of Illinois State folks were on my flight yesterday out of Bloomington, including university president Dr. Al Bowman, who announced his retirement last week.

The Redbirds are playing in the FCS quarterfinals today at Eastern Washington, which is about 20 minutes from Spokane.

Hope you caught our story on Brandon Paul and his older brother, Cliff Jr., today. Strong bond in that family. The Pauls are in Bloomington-Normal tonight to watch Brandon's younger brother Darius and Western Michigan take on Illinois State on the hardwood.

I’m going to get settled in here and be back with another update soon.

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