John Groce came to Hawaii wondering how his team would react when it was slapped with its first real taste of adversity.
He knew Illinois would find it somewhere on the islands, and it did Friday night (and into Saturday morning) in a thrilling game with the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Down by as many as 16 points, Illinois rallied, forced overtime, fell behind by 5 in overtime, then won the game 78-77 when D.J. Richardson’s 3-pointer from the deep corner that narrowly beat the buzzer (the officials needed to review the play on the video monitor).
Illinois trailed 77-75 when Jace Tavita hit the second of two free throws with 7.5 seconds to go in overtime.
Tracy Abrams brought the ball up and with just a 2-point lead, the Hawaii defense had to close off the basket. But Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson ran to the corners and Abrams found Richardson, who nailed the game-winner.
Those three players carried the Illini offensively.
Paul finished with 25 points and made 5 of 10 3-pointers.
Abrams had an outstanding first half and finished with 22 points and 5 steals.
And Richardson, who didn’t do much in the first half, scored 16 as Illinois improved to 3-0 heading to the EA Sports Maui Invitational on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The kids showed great resolve,” Groce said. “They kept swinging and swinging and swinging. As Tracy just said in the locker room, we didn’t come out ready. They popped us in the mouth first and we responded.
“But you have to set the rules when you’re on the road and we got away with one tonight.
“Give our guys credit, though, because we kept making plays.”
Illinois fell behind early, 19-7, and trailed by as many as 16 points. Hawaii’s halftime lead was 41-28.
But slowly, Illinois began changing the momentum in the second half. And when Richardson hit a 3-point and Paul followed with a jumper and Richardson followed that with a pair of free throws, the Hawaii lead was down to 52-47.
From that point on, it was a battle.
The score was 57-52, but when Nnanna Egwu scored on a rebound it was a one-possession game with 4:40 to play in regulation. And when Tyler Griffey scored on an assist from Paul, the lead had been cut to 57-54.
Finally, Illinois took the lead 61-60 when Abrams drove inside for a basket with 2:51 to play.
Illinois nearly won it in regulation.
A 3-pointer by Paul had given Illinois a 66-64 lead and Hawaii’s Brandon Spearman – who prepped at Chicago Simeon and had a big game – went to the free throw line but missed and Egwu blocked a shot out of bounds, giving Hawaii another chance.
A shot missed, but Hawaii big man Vander Joaquim rebounded the ball and hit a 10-footer that beat the buzzer and tied the game, 66-66, forcing overtime.
In the extra period, Hawaii took a 74-69 lead behind Joaquim, putting Illinois in another hole.
But a 3-pointer by Richardson brought Illinois to within two points.
After a pair of free throws by Hawaii’s Hauns Brereton, Sam McLaurin tipped in a basket and with 53 seconds to go, Abrams hit 1 of 2 free throws to slice the Hawaii lead to 76-75.
Richardson had a 3-point look on the next possession, but he missed and Tavita went to the line with two free throws and 7.5 seconds remaining in overtime.
He missed the first free throw, then converted the second for a 77-75 lead, setting up Richardson’s game-winner.
Groce became emotional in his post-game radio interview, because he dedicated the victory to former Illini star and radio analyst Jerry Hester, whose father, Jerry Hester Sr., passed away on Friday.
Hester, a Peoria native, did the radio call from Honolulu and said his father would have been proud that a Peoria athlete (Richardson) made the game-winning shot.
“Our three perimeter players (Abrams, Paul, Richardson) were terrific,” Groce said. “Abrams made big plays. All three of them stepped up big. We need more production from our 4s and 5s and I’m confident we’ll get that moving forward. We’ll need it.
“Tracy was locked in. He maybe played the most complete game at both ends of the floor.
“I kept telling them at halftime, there is no 13-point possession. Win one war at a time. Every possession matters. The kids did a great job staying with it and they showed great poise at the end.”
Illinois (3-0) hops over to Maui and takes on Southern California at 11 p.m. (Central) on Monday.