BY CHAD DARE
Many teams can be judged by how they deal with adversity.
The Illinois men’s basketball team showed a lot in Saturday’s come-from-behind 85-74 road win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Now, the Fighting Illini, who moved up to No. 10 in the latest Associated Press Poll, must prove that they can also handle success as well as they have adversity.
“Do I think we have the capability of being a very good basketball team? I really do,” said Groce after Saturday’s victory. “We’ve got to be consistent with it … let’s see how humble we are going into (tonight’s game with Norfolk State).
“That’s the challenge — consistency over greatness.’’
And just last week, Illinois struggled to a 72-64 win over Western Carolina after its big win over Georgia Tech (85-74) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
So, tonight’s game against Norfolk State, which is 6-5 and enters on a four-game win streak, will be a good test for the Fighting Illini, who are 10-0 under its first-year coach.
“We took several steps forward,’’ Groce said. “Now, we have to use that as a springboard into the rest of the season.’’
And even though the coach is also quick to point out that it was just one game, Groce did see several things that he likes from his squad.
“I thought our toughness and togetherness was exemplary,” Groce said.
That’s because Illinois, which fell behind 8-0 in the game’s opening minutes, overcame a 31-20 first-half deficit to tie the game at 41-41 at halftime.
And that’s when senior guard Brandon Paul gave his team a pep talk.
“I kept telling everybody, ‘This is it. We’ve got to take this right now’,” Paul said. “We’re not playing well, but we’re still in this game.”
Paul, the Big Ten Player of the Week, went on to score a game-high 35 points on 10-of-16 shooting and the guard from Gurnee was 5-of-9 behind the 3-point arc.
“He looked like a high-level NBA guy,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t have a guy who could guard him one-on-one basically.”
Illinois, which leads the NCAA with an average of 10.8 3-pointers per game, made 11 of 26 from long range.
“I didn’t want to rely too much on the 3, but they were giving me open shots,” Paul said.
Tracy Abrams added 14 points and Groce is off to the best debut for an Illinois coach in the team’s modern history.
And it was the school’s first road win over a top-10 opponent since 1986.
“We believed, and that’s all that counts,’’ Groce said. “We trusted one another. We trusted the system. The system isn’t perfect yet, but we’re making strides. We’re seeing what we can accomplish and we’re getting more confident in one another.’’
After tonight’s home game against Norfolk State, the 10th-rated Illinois Fighting Illini will host Eastern Kentucky in a 5 p.m. game this Sunday at the Assembly Hall.
Tonight’s game can be seen only on the Internet at http://www.espn3.com, but it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1
Norfolk State Spartans
vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
Where — Assembly Hall
When — 7 p.m.
Records — Norfolk State 6-5; Illinois 10-0.
Rankings — The Fighting Illini moved up to No. 10 in the latest Associated Press Poll.
Television — none
Radio — Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL 102.1
Previous results — first-ever meeting between Illinois and Norfolk State.
Last game results — Norfolk State defeated Maryland-Baltimore County 83-66; while Illinois defeated Gonzaga 85-74.
Next game — Norfolk State will play at North Carolina State on Saturday; Illinois will host Eastern Kentucky at 5 p.m. on Sunday.