BY JIM COTTER
It’s hard to tell what a few days of practice can do to a team.
After a stretch of six games in 12 days, the Fighting Illini had a few days to work on some fundamentals, and won their ninth game to start the 2012-13 season, although they survived a scare, outlasting the Catamounts of Western Carolina 72-64 on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
Illinois, who came into the game ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and No. 14 in the ESPN/USA Today coach’s poll, struggled all evening long.
Although the Illini only committed 11 turnovers in the game, they mishandled the ball quite a bit, but managed to regain control — thus minimizing the turnover total.
“We need to take better care of the ball, and that begins with me,” Illini guard Tracy Abrams said.
The Illini, who never trailed in the ballgame, took a 32-22 lead into the halftime locker room. Although at certain times, they looked a bit sluggish. The Catamounts whittled away at the lead, and the game remained close throughout the second half with Western Carolina tying the game on several occasions down the in the second half.
“I really like Illinois’ team, and they played well down the stretch, but I also like our team. However, we are a tired bunch, having been on the road for what seems like forever,” Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said after the game.
This was the seventh straight road game for the Catamounts, dating back to nearly a month ago.
Illinois, who struggled from beyond the arc for just the second time this season, made just 7-24 from the perimeter tonight, a sharp contrast from what they have been doing thus far this season.
“The players are learning that you have to play a complete game of 40 minutes, and tonight was proof of that,” Illinois coach John Groce said after the game. “We didn’t play like we practiced, and that falls on me.”
The Catamounts won the battle of the boards, outrebounding the Illini by a 41-34 margin.
“I thought (Tawaski) King was a beast in there tonight and really outplayed our guys in the paint,” Groce said of Western Carolina’s big man. “I will be interested to see how he does the rest of the season for them,” Groce added.
Brandon Paul led Illinois in scoring with 14 points, while D. J. Richardson and Abrams added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
“We need to be more aggressive in the game, and not rely on three pointers so much,” Richardson said of his team’s performance.
With the win, Illinois improves to 9-0 on the season, and John Groce becomes the first coach to start his UI career in over 100 years.
All 10 players that Groce used in the game scored for the Illini, including Mike Shaw, who saw limited action in the first half, but hit a key three pointer in that stretch.
“I thought Mike (Shaw) has been playing better in practice recently, and with the exception of the shot he took, played pretty well while he was in there”,Groce said of his sophomore forward.
Western Carolina, who falls to 3-6 with the loss, was led in scoring by Preston Ross, who had a game high 17 points. James Sinclair added 13, while King chipped in 10 for the Catamounts, who shot 39 percent from the field, including 9-21 from beyond the arc.
The Illini will get their first real test this coming Saturday evening, when they travel west to Spokane, Wash. to battle the 10th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. The game is set to tip off Saturday evening at 9 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2, as well as on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1, as well as the rest of the Illini Radio Network.