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.
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.
Olynyk finally received a pass underneath and instead of going up strong, he faded a little, looking like he expected contact.
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.