It was crunch time, do-or-die time, reach-deep-and-find-another-gear-or-go-home-weepy time.
And with seven minutes to go in Wednesday night’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at the Assembly Hall, Georgia Tech was looking like it just might have the edge with athletes who could get to the rim.
Georgia Tech led 58-54 and Illinois needed a spark that could turn into to a wildfire.
Enter Joseph Bertrand, who is beginning to exert himself as a maturing athlete who is finally showing a big-time skill level.
Bertrand took the game over, scoring 10 unanswered points by himself, triggering a 21-4 finishing sprint that gave Illinois a 75-62 victory that ended up being essential in the Big Ten barely hanging into the Commissioner’s Cup with a 6-6 tie.
After leading 4-2 in games played on Tuesday, the Big Ten won just two of six games on Wedneday (Illinois and Purdue). And while that’s disappointing, Illinois can be pleased knowing it did its part and won in the Challenge for the fourth straight year.
Give Bertrand the MVP award for this game based on his scintillating minute-and-a-half stretch that broke the game open.
And give the runnerup MVP to Illinois’ defense, which triggered that burst with steals, deflections and blocked shots.
“I thought our defense ignited our offense in the 21-4 run,” coach John Groce said. “When we defend like that and get stops and get out and run, we can score points in a hurry.”
That’s just what happened as Illinois trailed 58-54 when Bertrand took the game over.
It started when Brandon Paul stole the ball and hit Bertrand with an outlet pass, resulting in a gliding fast break layup that closed Georgia Tech’s lead to 58-56.
At that instant, Groce turned to the Assembly Hall crowd and began windmilling his arms, begging the fans to crank up the volume.
“I don’t do that a whole lot with the crowd, but I thought it was a heck of a play and we needed them,” Groce said. “It makes a huge difference. The energy in the building went up another notch or two and our players feed off that.”
Just as Groce beckoned the crowd to get move involved, Illinois created another turnover and this time Bertrand buried a 3-pointer to put the Illini on top, 59-58.
Now the fans were standing on their own with the Orange Krush student section whipping their white towels high in the air.
Illinois responded again, this time with 6-foot-4 Paul blocking the shot of 6-8 Robert Carter. With the crowd roaring, Bertrand took the ball with pulled up with another jumper, flicking in a 3-pointer to extend the Illini lead to 62-58.
After Georgia Tech called timeout to regroup with 5:15 to play, the Illini defense trigged another Bertrand basket, this one a fast-break, acrobatic, gravity-defying, double-pumping, bank shot while being fouled.
Paul called the basket, “that loopedy-loop ridiculous shot that you’ll see on Sports Center tonight.”
Bertrand, who was a gymnast as a youth, said the basket, “was just momentum, adrenalin, the crowd was going. It was a big play and I had to finish it.”
With that basket Illinois had a 64-58 lead it would never relinquish, despite abysmal free throw shooting. Illinois made just 7 of 18 free throws on the night and Paul was 3-for-9.
But while the Illini couldn’t find the range from 15 feet, they were better from beyond the 3-point line.
Illinois made 14 of 28 3-pointers, missing the team’s Assembly Hall record for made 3-pointers by one and the all-time school record by two.
It was the seventh time in eight games that the Illini have hit at least 10 3-pointers. They entered the game leading the nation in 3-point field goals made at 10.9 per game.
So it’s an 8-0 start that will grow to 9-0 on Dec. 4 when Illinois hosts Western Carolina.
Then comes what figures to be a monumental task when the Illini play at 12th-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 8.
These next five or six days are crucial, Groce said, because while playing game after game after game, the team will not have some long, hard two-hour practices where the staff gets to work on some shortcomings.
Rebounding and a stronger offensive presence in the post will be high on the list.
Yes, free throw shooting, too, which fans like to point out. But this is a good shooting team that will get rolling from the line. Eventually.