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Mernagh: Illini are for Real

December 9, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

John Groce didn’t like what he was seeing with 7:06 left in the game last night so he did what a lot of coaches do, he called a 30 second timeout.

Gary Bell Jr’s three-pointer for Gonzaga had just cut the Illini lead to 68-64 and Tracy Abrams looked hesitant setting up the offense as the “Kennel” was going insane for the first time in ages. After all, Groce’s crew had grabbed this game by the neck and controlled it throughout the second half. So Groce called for his dry erase board and flipped the script on his first year squad. The over caffeinated Groce — who is normally stomping his feet, pacing the sidelines and screaming for a ref’s attention — was the epitome of calm as he drew up what he wanted coming out of the timeout. You could see his mind clicking, firing on all cylinders and taking in how truly big this moment was for his squad.

They were 9-0 and up on the road against a Zags team ranked #10 in the country. A Zags team, by the way, that everyone was already crowning as Few’s best ever and a final four contender (yawn, heard it before, holler at me in March if they’re still balling on weekend number two).

Not only were the pundits knighting the Zags, they were also throwing some salt on the Orange Crush and their incredible start. Arguments varied from they won a weak Maui field -to- they shoot too many 3′s-to- the one the Illini had heard all week, wait until they go into Spokane and get snapped back to reality.

So Groce called the timeout, told his stud Brandon Paul to check back into the game, and drew up a horns set.

That set turned into a high ball screen for Paul set by Sam McLaurin after Paul had probed the opposite side of the free throw line and told D.J. Richardson to drop into the lane. Elias Harris didn’t stay nearly close enough to McLaurin as he set the screen, plus he hedged out on Paul in a manner that a 145 pound high school guard could’ve handled without much trouble. Meanwhile Gary Bell Jr went under the screen and when Paul found himself all alone at the three-point arc, he did what Brandon Paul does… he raised up and nailed it.

71-64 Illini.

Gonzaga’s response on the next possession was to refuse to play inside out. Instead, the Zags got a contested three point attempt that missed.

Illinois came down and ran the same set. This time Paul passed on the shot and his squad ran through about 29 seconds of the shot clock. With 6 seconds left on the clock, Paul found himself up top isolated with a big, Kelly Olynyk. Paul attacked him off the bounce and finished at the rim for his 26th and 27th point of the night.

73-64 Illinois with 5:46 left.

Gonzaga cut it to 3, 73-70 a few minutes later and this time Tracy Abrams was the guard who responded, attacking his man off the bounce for a bucket.

75-70 Illini with a little over 3 minutes left.

Paul finally sent the Dawgs to their crate without dinner with another drive to the rim — again, Harris was less than hearty in his objection to Paul’s path — which he finished while being fouled by Olynyk.

78-71 Illinois.

Olynyk finally received a pass underneath and instead of going up strong, he faded a little, looking like he expected contact.
No whistle.

Man’s game, no boys allowed.

Abrams, a sophomore, hit two free throws to put the Illini up 80-71.

Illinois came into Gonzaga and controlled the home team.

John Groce has an experienced, grown up group who are fully invested in his philosophy and hungry for success. They get into you defensively and rip the ball out of your hands. They recognize mismatches and attack them offensively. They push the ball. They believe.
Brad Stevens tried to tell everybody that this bunch was for real after getting blitzed by them in Maui.

Folks seemed skeptical.

Please, no more skepticism.

Illinois will be in the mix all year in the Big Ten and will challenge for the top spot.

Brandon Paul will be in the mix for player of the year.

The final score was 85-74 Illinois.

Add one more contender to the list in the already loaded Big Ten.

The Illini are for real.

Mernagh: Gibbs Will Return

May 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

No shock to anyone who understands how this works and how a kid like Gibbs ticks. He was in it 100% because that’s how he does everything — that doesn’t mean he would ever make a decision that wasn’t sound (he’s too smart to do that). Here’s the full release from Pitt’s Greg Hotchkiss but the most important thing to understand is Pitt will have their sniper back and everybody can re-adjust those stupid April top-25′s everyone seems to think they have to post.

PITTSBURGH—Junior guard Ashton Gibbs announced Saturday that he will withdraw from the 2011 NBA Draft and return to the University of Pittsburgh for his senior season. Since he did not sign with an agent, Gibbs retained the option to withdraw from the draft per NCAA rules. The NBA Draft Early Entry withdrawal deadline is on Sunday, May 8.

“I am extremely excited that Ashton will return to the court for us next year,” Pitt Head Coach Jamie Dixon said. “We encouraged and supported Ashton in his pursuit of NBA Draft possibilities. Ashton and I had numerous discussions dating back to last year and during the process. Anytime you are an All-Big East First Team player, the professional field is something we encourage our players to look into. Ashton is a tremendous representative for the University of Pittsburgh. He embodies everything you want in a student-athlete and has always made decisions for the right reasons. This is just another example.”

“In discussing my options the last couple of weeks with my family and Coach Dixon, I feel that it is in my best interest to return to Pitt for my senior season,” Gibbs said. “The NBA can wait a year. I look forward to continuing the success that we’ve established here at Pitt and finish my collegiate career with all of my teammates and fellow senior Nasir Robinson. It will also be extra special to earn my degree.”

As one of the nation’s top shooters and scorers in 2010-11, Gibbs earned AP All-America honorable mention, USBWA and NABC All-District honors while becoming just the ninth player in school history to be selected to the All-Big East First Team. He ranked third among NCAA Division I leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (49.0 percent), fifth in 3-point field goals made per game (3.3) and 18th in free throw percentage (88.9 percent). He also led the Panthers in scoring for the second straight season (16.8 ppg.) and also set a Pitt season record for 3-point field goals made (102).

On the year, Gibbs scored 20 or more points 12 times, reached double figure scoring in 26 of his 31 games played and converted three or more 3-pointers in 20 contests. As a sophomore in 2009-10, Gibbs was named the Big East Most Improved Player, earned Second Team All-Big East honors and was a Bob Cousy Award finalist.

A two-time Big East Academic All-Star, Gibbs enters his senior season ranked among Pitt’s career leaders in scoring (1,207 points, 23rd), 3-point field goals made (216, 4th), 3-point field goal percentage (44.1 percent, 2nd) and free throw percentage (87.9 percent, 2nd). In 100 career games played and 64 starts, he has averaged 12.1 points, scored 20 or more points 23 times and converted at least three 3-pointers in 43 games.

Pitt returns two starters (Gibbs and Robinson) and seven of its top-10 letterwinners from a squad that won the Big East regular season title outright with a 15-3 record, finished 28-6 overall, earned a No. 1 seed upon entering the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the 10th consecutive season.

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