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A late flurry from Joseph Bertrand helped Illinois fend off a tough Georgia Tech team, 75-62 on Wednesday. The junior guard came off the bench to tie for the team lead in scoring with 15 points, 10 of which came in a 90 second barrage late in the second half.
No. 22 Illinois improved to 8-0 on the season, but head coach John Groce said the perfect start was a byproduct of hard work.
“Everyday I’m worried about tomorrow…we’re caught up in the process and the journey and we let the results come,” Groce said. “Our guys have been resilient. We’ve been popped in the mouth and come back a few times.”
Groce credited his team as a unit for the win, choosing not to highlight Bertrand alone for his spectacular play.
“Everybody who played tonight made a play, or two, or more. Joseph was one of those guys,” he said.
The game got going for Illinois with a steal by Tracy Abrams and an alley-oop to Nnanna Egwu. The Yellow Jackets never let the hosts slip away, and five minutes into the first half Georgia Tech’s interior presence began to cause problems.
The visitors got a fast break basket by Mfon Udofia and started to create better. They worked the ball inside and out to spread the Illinois zone, opening up three-point attempts and interior shots. The balanced offense helped the Jackets get D.J. Richardson into foul trouble and open a lead as high as six points.
“Early in the game their transition really got us on our heels,” Groce said.
The Illini would threaten with ten minutes left in the half thanks to a three by Bertrand, but Tech would gain separation again with a corresponding three from Marcus Georges-Hunt. With eight minutes left in the first half Georgia Tech was ahead, 29-25.
Three straight turnovers and two offensive fouls led to a scoring drought of more than four minutes for Illinois. The Yellow Jackets did not take full advantage, mustering just two points during the dry spell, giving Illinois a break.
Brandon Paul’s three with four to play in the first pulled Illinois within three, 31-28, kick starting a rally. Abrams tied the game a minute later with an old-fashioned, and-one three-point play. At 1:20, Paul gave Illinois its first lead since 14:49 with a deep two, but a foul and two baskets by Kammeon Holsey tied the game again.
A Myke Henry three would put Illinois back on top and give them enough to carry a lead into halftime, 36-35. The Illini went into the half with an 18-13 advantage in rebounding, but the ref’s whistle did them no favors as the team tallied 11 fouls to Georgia Tech’s four.
After the break Illinois came out roaring on both sides of the ball. Richardson forced a jump ball on Georgia Tech’s first possession, then sank a three to open the scoring. Tyler Griffey followed that up with a three of his own and a steal. Off the steal, Griffey fed a streaking Richardson, who turned around to dump off to Paul for a slam, putting Illinois ahead 44-37 with just 1:30 elapsed in the second half.
Georgia Tech would follow the 8-2 Illinois run with a 13-6 stretch of their own, taking a lead midway through the half. A pair of threes from Chris Bolden helped the Yellow Jackets grab a 54-50 lead with just under ten minutes to play.
The gap remained four points for Illinois thanks, in part, to sloppy free throw shooting. Paul, Egwu and Sam McLaurin all had two missed free throws in the first 12 minutes of the second half. The Illini shot just 7-of-18 from the free throw line, with all but one of those made shots coming in the final two minutes.
Bertrand quickly made up for the free throw miscues and got the crowd at the Assembly Hall rocking.
The redshirt junior scored 10 points in 90 seconds to put the Illini in front for good.
“Joe stepped up for us and that says a lot about his character,” Paul said after the game.
His first basket came on a fast break from a Paul steal. He continued his run with a three and followed that with another after a block by Paul. The most impressive part of his run, was an acrobatic floater off his own steal. His hustle gave the Illini a 64-58 lead with less than five minutes to play.
Richardson followed up the outburst with a pair of threes, putting Illinois nine points ahead of the Yellow Jackets with two minutes left. Illinois finished the game on a 21-4 run to stay undefeated and secure a win in their first game as a ranked team this season.
“Defense ignited offense at the end,” Groce said. “When we do that we can get out on a run.”
Paul caught Bertrand late in the game with a few made free throws, finishing with 15 points of his own. Paul also led the team in rebounding, with seven. Griffey and Richardson were tied for second in scoring, with 14.
The win, the perfect start, a Challenge win – none of that could slow Groce’s ambition for this team. He summed up his approach with the team by quoting Will Rogers: “Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still you’ll get run over.”
Practice tomorrow, according to Groce, will be about getting mentally and physically rejuvenated, then doing everything not to get run over.