SPOKANE, Wash. — McCarthey Athletic Center only holds 6,000 fans, but the venue and environment might be the toughest Illinois plays in all season.
Gonzaga was 55-5 against nonconference opponents at the Kennel before No. 13 Illinois left with an 85-74 win against the 10th-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday.
“It was one of the most fun games I’ve ever played,” Illinois senior D.J. Richardson said. “We were together and made tough plays. Our captains were big tonight. We kept the team together and when they made runs, we were still together as a team.”
The Gonzaga student section, 1,200 strong, camped out for two nights prior to the game to secure their seats for the matchup a GU senior called the best matchup he’s ever seen at McCarthey. They were right on top of the floor and loud.
“I would say that’s one of the toughest environments. I’m only a sophomore, but that was up there,” Tracy Abrams said.
“We’ve played in a lot of tough environments, but nothing like this,” Richardson said.
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After the first few games of the season, first-year Illinois coach John Groce said he was looking forward to seeing how his team would respond after getting “popped in the mouth.”
The first time it happened was at Hawaii when Illinois trailed by 16. They rallied and won the game on a last-second three-pointer by Richardson. It’s happened a few times since then and it happened Saturday when the Bulldogs built an 8-0 lead a couple of minutes into the game. Illinois didn’t panic.
“We just said keep our poise, stay under control,” said Brandon Paul, who led the Illini with 35 points. “We knew they were going to make their runs. We had plenty of open shots early in the game, we just didn’t knock them down. I think I went 1 for 5 on my first five shots.”
The Illini kept chipping away, even when the Gonzaga lead grew to 11 and the packed Kennel was at a fever pitch.
“I sensed it in the first half. It was early on and we weren’t playing the best we could have and we were only down five points,” Paul said. “I kept telling everybody, ‘This is it, we’ve got to take this right now. We’re not playing that well right now, but we’re still in the game. They’re not going to lay down for us, we’ve got to take it for ourselves.’ ”
Illinois has been tabbed as overrated by folks across the country and the oddsmakers had Groce’s club as a double-digit underdog against Gonzaga.
“Do I think we have the capability of being a very good basketball team? I really do,” Groce said. “We’ve got to be consistent with it. Tuesday night against Western Carolina, we weren’t very good. Tonight, we were really good. We’ll see what we do Tuesday (vs. Norfolk State). Let’s see how humble we are going to Tuesday now, that’s the challenge. Consistency over greatness.
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For just the second time this season, senior forward Tyler Griffey was held to fewer than 10 points. Griffey scored four points in Saturday’s win and it wasn’t that the sharp-shooter was missing shots, it’s how far off the mark he was.
Griffey hit nothing but backboard twice in the second half on three-point attempts. His teammates were able to laugh about it afterward.
“Tyler missed the entire rim in the second half,” Paul quipped. “We know how great of a shooter is, he’ll bounce back.”
Griffey made big plays for the Illini on Saturday, including a nifty fadeaway jumper over 7-footer Kelly Olynyk to end the first half that sent the Illini into the locker room tied at 41.
“His jumper wasn’t going tonight, but I thought he did some good things defensively,” Groce said.
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Illinois had frontcourt foul trouble most of the game matching up against Gonzaga’s loaded big men. Nnanna Egwu and Griffey were plagued with foul issues all night and the guys on the bench came in to provide solid minutes.
Sam McLaurin had four points and four rebounds — three offensive. Myke Henry, who guarded GU’s Elias Harris, had six points in a season-high 22 minutes. Joseph Bertrand scored nine off the bench and Mike Shaw played a little in the first half.
“I think everyone’s confidence level is through the roof. It takes everybody to win a game on down the line through the bench,” Paul said. “The bench did great for us. Obviously, we had a lot of guys in foul trouble. They’re playing hard and coming in helping us out. We’re finding ways to finish games.”
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A few times, Illinois got caught in defensive rotations that ended with 6-foot-1 Tracy Abrams in the post guarding 7-foot-1, 305-pound center Przemek Karnowski and 7-footer Olynyk.
Abrams held his own.
“Just be tough, be physical, that’s all I can do,” he said. “Try to front them, be tough and get my little body on them.”
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Paul silenced the 6,000 Ganozaga faithful with his masterful performance Saturday night. The folks inside the Bulldogs' locker room weren't silent when discussing what Illinois' senior guard did to them on the court.
"I thought he was exceptional; he looked like a high level NBA guy," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "He can get a shot anytime he wants and we were doing a variety of things with him by trapping him and running different guys at him but we just did not have a guy that could guard him one on one."
Gary Bell Jr. was one of those guys trying to guard Paul. He wasn't succesful, neither were any other other Zags.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve played against in my two years,” Bell said. “He’s probably going to be a Leaguer (NBA player). We’d cut their lead down and they’d come back down and get a 3 or an and-one or we’d foul them. We just have to play better defense.”