By Rodney S. Yap
Although Illinois basketball is only five games into the John Groce era, the early-season progress report is as bright as the sun shining on West Maui.
Illinois improved to 5-0 Tuesday by defeating Chaminade 84-61 in the semifinals of the EA SPORTS Maui Invitational Basketball Tournament at the Lahaina Civic Center. The victory was the Illini’s second against a 50th state school in less than a week as the Illini beat Hawai’i last Friday 72-71 in overtime at the Stan Sheriff Center.
Illinois will face Butler in the today’s championship game at 5 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
Butler advanced by beating ninth-ranked North Carolina, 82-71, in Tuesday’s other semifinal game before a jam packed Civic Center crowd of 2,400.
“Illinois is a tough team,” second-year Silverswords coach Eric Bovaird said. “They can really shoot the basketball, and defensively they are tough, too. We had a hard time, harder than we’ve ever had getting it into the paint and creating things.”
Chaminade senior guard De’Andre Haskins was held to 19 points. Haskins scored a career-high 32 points on Monday against Texas. Bennie Murray added 10 and freshman Kevin Hu was held to eight points.
The Fighting Illini made double-digit 3-pointers in every game this year and were 11-of-28 from beyond the arc against the Silverswords (3-2), who play North Carolina for third place today at 2:30 p.m.
“We’re happy to be in the championship game,” Groce said. “Our guys have earned that right based on the way they played, their effort and our execution continues to get better this is going to make us a more complete team.”
Playing perhaps its most complete game thus far, Illinois got scoring contributions from all but two players on its 13-man roster. In addition to shooting the ball well, again, Illinois held Chaminade to 33% from the field in the first half, and got solid bench play, a welcome blessing when your playing three games in three days.
“I thought the difference was at the defensive end in the first half . . . we forced 14 turnovers,” Groce said. “The second factor was our bench, led by Joseph (Bertrand), Devin Langford and Myke Henry gave us great energy off the bench. What an asset to have as our team continues to develop and get better everyday.”
Good teams have depth and Illinois’ was on display to the end of the bench. Bertrand finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 17 minutes of playing time. Henry added seven points and seven boards, while Langford had three points and five rebounds.
Illinois improved to 8-3 in the Maui Invitational and will be appearing in its second championship final. In 2000, Arizona beat the Fighting Illini, 79-76.
Groce is familiar with Butler and coach Brad Stevens, having coached with him in 2001.
“Butler is very well coached,” Groce said. “They’re tough. They’re physical. They don’t beat themselves. They execute well.
“Brad and I are really close we talk frequently and shoot ideas at one another, maybe not quite as much this year, until we get through this tournament.”
After Illinois finished with a disappointing season last year (17-15 overall, 6-12, tied for 9th in the Big Ten), under former head coach Bruce Weber, the school decided to make a coaching change, firing Weber, who now is the head coach at Kansas State, and hiring Groce, who last year took Ohio to the Sweet 16.
“It’s a great opportunity for our guys. This is a great tournament. I watched it when I was younger, especially the championship game, Wednesday night, before Thanksgiving, the whole country is watching it. For us to have the opportunity to play in such a prestigious tournament — the championship game — our guys are looking forward to it and the challenge.”
Illionis’ current senior class, led by Tyler Griffey, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, underachieved last year as juniors. Through this current five-game win streak, the upperclassmen have played like veterans, making positive contributions, while supporting a solid group of underclassmen like Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu.
In the media room after the game, Groce was ask to describe his team’s style of play in a word. The coach responded: “Attacking.”
“I think for us, I would hope, that our identity is attacking. We are very aggressive with every single thing that we do, weather that’s defensively or offensively. We play at a pace on the offensive end that is an up tempo, transition game. Or even when we are running our half-court offense, we are hard to guard.
“Tomorrow night I hope we will be attacking.”
In other games Tuesday, USC defeated Texas 59-53 in overtime, while Marquette rolled over Mississippi State, 89-62.
TODAY’S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME NOTES: Butler split its two games prior to heading to Maui, where it has put together an improbable run to say the least. First, the Bulldogs defeated Marquette in the opening round, 72-71, on a last-second game-winning three-pointer by Rotnei Clarke. They somehow managed to top that performance in the semifinals against No. 9 North Carolina by winning 82-71 in a game they led wire-to-wire.
The Illini’s fantastic early-season run started with a pair of home wins over Colgate (75-55) and Saint Francis (89-64) before traveling to Hawaii for a road game with the Rainbow Warriors, a contest they won in overtime, 78-77. Illinois barely broke a sweat in the tournament so far, beating USC (94-64) and Chaminade (84-61) en route to the championship game
Illinois leads the all-time series with Butler, 29-8, and the teams have never before met on a neutral floor.
The Bulldogs have put up merely average shooting percentages by their standards both from the field overall (.446) and from three-point range (.333), but against UNC they came out firing. They made 25-of-53 from the floor, including 12-of-25 from downtown, as they led by as many as 29 in the second half. Clarke and Kellen Dunham each scored 17 points, and the two combined to hit 9-of-15 three-pointers on the night. Andrew Smith netted 13 points, and Khyle Marshall tallied 10 points and 11 rebounds. Butler was also stellar from the free throw line, hitting 20-of-25 from the stripe to help hold off a late run by the Tar Heels. On the season, Clarke is Butler’s leading scorer with 16.2 ppg, albeit on just 39% field goal accuracy. Marshall (13.8 ppg) is the team’s leading rebounding with 7.0 rpg, and Dunham (12.5 ppg) has drained 92.9% of his free throws.
Illinois has been fantastic this season, shooting 46.3% from the floor while outscoring its opponents by nearly 20 ppg, winning the battle on the boards by 6.2 rpg, and forcing four more turnovers per game than it commits. The effort was no different against Chaminade in the semifinals as it shot 49.2% from the floor, including 39.3% from three-point range (11-of-28) on its way to a 23-point win. Joseph Bertrand came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points in just 17 minutes. Brandon Paul scored 13 points, D.J. Richardson put up 11 points, and Tyler Griffey chipped in 10 points. Paul has been one of the best shooters in the nation on the young season, as he’s averaging 19.6 ppg while draining more than 47% of his three-point attempts. Tracy Abrams logs 13.8 ppg and a team-high 4.4 apg, and Richardson rounds out the unit’s double-digit scorers with 11.4 ppg.