Bezhanishvili’s attitude, play help Illinois win Big Ten Tournament after year of uncertainty

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili goes up for a shot during the Big Ten Tournament championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 14. Bezhanishvili’s 12 points off the bench helped the Illini win their first conference title since 2005.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

Sacrifice is never easy. Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili has had to make plenty — both on and off the court the past few seasons — but he takes it in stride.

On the court, Bezhanishvili was once a force in the paint for the Illini. He played 26 minutes per game his freshman season, averaging double-digit points and even set the Illini freshman scoring record with a 35-point outing against Rutgers.

Then, Kofi Cockburn stepped foot in Champaign, and Bezhanishvili’s role changed significantly. As a sophomore, Underwood tried playing the two bigs together for most of the season, starting Bezhanishvili for 24 of the 31 games.

Brad Underwood realized that pairing wasn’t meshing, so he sent Bezhanishvili to the bench. He has not started any of Illinois’ last 36 games. The minutes have decreased to just 14 per game, and shot attempts are down from 9.5 per game to just 4.0 this season.

Yet, Bezhanishvili never got discouraged, and he’s been one of the more upbeat characters on this Illini team this season. You can see him on the bench cheering his teammates on, and when he’s in the game, he’s a constant communicator on defense.

Bezhanishvili has shown flashes of his freshman self this season, scoring in double figures five times. But his biggest moment of the season was undoubtedly in the Big Ten Tournament championship on Sunday. With Cockburn on the bench in foul trouble, Bezhanishvili killed Ohio State on the glass and with his scoring. He exploded for 12 second-half points — his second-highest total of the entire season — and kept Illinois afloat, something his teammates noticed.

“The last two games he really wasn’t playing,” Ayo Dosunmu said. “But guess what? He did his thing in the championship game, so nobody cares about the first two games. Everybody remembers how he played in the championship. For him to just be over there, on the bench, waiting for his moment, coming in and seizing the moment? And being so great in that moment? My hat goes off to him.”

Bezhanishvili’s sacrifices on the court are admirable, but it’s nothing compared to what he’s sacrificed off the court. When the world shut down last March, Bezhanishvili did not return home to his native home of Rustavi, Georgia, and he spent the lockdown period by himself in Champaign. He hasn’t seen his family since he departed for Champaign in the summer of 2019.

That hasn’t changed his temperament, though. Bezhanishvili is still always positive. He wakes up every day to a handwritten message on a whiteboard in his room that makes him smile. He frequently posts videos of himself dancing on social media. Around campus, he loves to stop and smile at people.

“Why wouldn’t you be happy and smiling?” Bezhanishvili said in February. “Obviously we have issues and problems that come up in our lives and then we’re not as happy, but everything’s going well, and people are happy. Why not smile and have good energy?”

On Sunday, those sacrifices in his personal and basketball lives were rewarded as he was cutting down the nets in Indianapolis as a Big Ten champion. Bezhanishvili later met with reporters via Zoom. Donning his white “Big Ten Tournament Champions” hat, with his arm wrapped around the man who took his minutes at the five, Bezhanishvili only had a few words to sum up how he felt.

“It was amazing.”

@BrandonSimberg