Shame on every Illini basketball fan who felt there might not be enough of a reward to stay up late and watch your favorite team play Southern California late Monday night in the Maui Invitational.
You only missed one of the great first-half performances in recent memory.
Illinois shot lights-out, pushed the pace, played defense with emotion and intensity and made its final 11 field goals in a row to close out a stunning first half (leading 56-26 at intermission) en route to a 94-64 victory.
Illinois absolutely buried the much bigger Trojans, who came into the game as a 3-point favorite.
Shooting a sizzling 69 percent in the first half, Illinois advances in the winners’ bracket semifinal of the tournament and will meet a surprise first-round winner, host Chaminade, which knocked off Texas 86-73. Texas came into that game as a 17-point favorite.
The Illinois-Chaminade game is scheduled to tip off at 9:30 p.m. (Central), Tuesday and the game will be televised on ESPN2. Butler plays North Carolina in the other semifinal.
It’s hard to imagine Illinois playing better than it did in the first half against Southern California.
I remember some stellar stretches Illinois showed from the memorable 2004-2005 team. But this was on the par of anything I can think of and USC coach Kevin O’Neill burned four of his timeouts in the first half trying to stop the bleeding.
It didn’t work. Southern California bled all over the court.
Illinois broke Southern California’s back in the first half, making 12 of its last 14 shots including 11 in a row to close out a scintillating first half.
“We pretty much put the gas pedal down and never let up,” said Brandon Paul, who led Illinois with 26 points including six 3-pointers. “Everyone was hitting shots. Coach was calling great plays and everything was falling for us.”
Groce agreed that there was little to complain about in a memorable first half.
“We obviously played really well at both ends,” Groce said. “Everything was clicking. We emphasized playing with more pace and our pace hit them between the eyes in the first half. That tempo was not to their liking. Guys were stepping up and making shots. And our defense was really good in the first half. I was very pleased with our effort.”
Groce told his team that if they could force USC to play zone or switch on ball screens, that would be a good sign for the Illini.
“They did that,” he said. “They tried everything. Our guys really executed. They were locked in.”
There are only three 7-footers in the tournament and Southern California has all three of them. Yet Illinois out-rebounded the Trojans 42-20.
The only half of Illini basketball I can recall being as impressive came in November of 2004 when Illinois throttled Gonzaga and led 58-27 at intermission. That game was in Indianapolis. John Wooden was there and he told Bruce Weber that’s the way basketball was meant to be played. Bruce told me that compliment was one he would always remember.
Coach Wooden isn’t around any longer, but he would have admired Illinois’ intensity and ball-sharing against USC.
D.J. Richardson added 13 points, Tyler Griffey 10 and Joseph Bertrand had nine points.
Tracy Abrams had 11 points, six rebounds, eight assists and eight rebounds as Illinois got a little sloppy in the second half.
It’s very, very early in this season. But it has already been fun to watch Illinois establish some very good habits under coach John Groce. And when you have this kind of early success, it just reinforces the idea that the new head coach might know a thing or two. These guys are really playing hard and having fun and they’re buying whatever he’s selling.
We’ll see if that can continue against Chaminade, which was very, very impressive against Texas.
“If we win that game we’ll play for the championship,” Groce said. “But we’ll need a great effort against Chaminade.”