Illinois men’s basketball picks up 2 wins in 1st weekend

By Sean Hammond and Johnathan Hettinger

Illinois head coach John Groce has said it since the summer: For Illinois to do well, it needs to have a “by-committee” mind-set.

The mind-set seemed to flourish this weekend, as all 11 Illini scored in each of Illinois’ two wins to open the season. After falling behind 5-2 in the first half on Friday, Illinois never trailed again the entire weekend, a grand total of 77 minutes and 5 seconds of playing time. Illinois won 80-63 Friday and 86-62 Sunday.

“I thought everybody made at least a play or two or more,” Groce said after Friday’s win. “It’s going to take that mind set of ‘by-committee’ for this team ultimately to reach its potential this year.”

On Sunday, fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand accomplished something he hadn’t done in 83 previous games: He finished with a double-double. Bertrand had scored (he has a career-high of 25 points) and rebounded (career-high is 12 rebounds), but he didn’t put it together until Sunday night in a victory over Jacksonville State.

Bertrand led five Illini in double figures with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Juniors Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams added 13, while junior Nnanna Egwu and freshman Jaylon Tate added 10.

Illinois jumped out to a 12-1 lead, which it extended to a 40-27 halftime lead over the Gamecocks, thanks largely to 14 first-half points from Bertrand, whom Groce was especially pleased with.

“He was terrific,” Groce said. “I told him: ‘I’m not taking you out until you tell me you’re tired,’ because I thought he was the one guy who was really locked in.”

In the second half, Illinois did not commit a turnover and was 4-for-9 on 3-point shots, after going 0-for-4 in the first half. The second half also saw the emergence of Abrams, who scored a single point in the first 31 minutes, but added 12 in six minutes in the second half.

During Abrams’ absence from the game, freshman point guard Jaylon Tate stepped up, scoring eight points and dishing out six assists, but Groce pointed out that Tate finished with just one turnover.

Although the victory was never in doubt, Groce was not pleased that Illinois was outrebounded 44-37 and outhustled on loose balls. D.J. Felder and Teraes Clemmons had 10 rebounds each for the Gamecocks.

“It was unacceptable. The ball got in the paint too much,” Groce said. “We’ve got to scrap and claw and dig out more rebounds and loose balls, those 50-50 balls.”

On Friday, it was the hometown kid who stole the show in the season-opening victory against Alabama State. Rice, a Champaign native, led Illinois with 22 points in an 80-63 win.

Rice shot 6-of-12 for the game on top of 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in his return to Champaign after sitting out last season following his transfer from Drake.

Egwu quietly put together the second double-double of his career, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, while Bertrand added 14.

Illinois let Alabama State hang around for much of the first half Friday, struggling early against the Hornets’ 2-3 zone defense. The Illini surged late in the half after the Hornets pulled within six, at 31-25 with 4:12 remaining. Seven points from Rice and another bucket from Egwu extended the Illini lead to 40-26 at the break.

Illinois would cruise to victory in the second half, leading by as much as 28. Jamel Waters led Alabama State with 27 points.

Sean and Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] Follow them on Twitter @sean_hammond and @jhett93.