CHAMPAIGN — A year ago, the Illinois men’s basketball team wore bracelets with TNT on them.
That stood for “Toughness and Togetherness.”
On Sunday afternoon at the State Farm Center, the Fighting Illini revived those thoughts with a 81-55 victory over the Bradley Braves.
“I really, really liked our toughness and our togetherness,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought we were really ready to play.
“I loved our effort, and our attitude was off the charts.’’
And Illinois (4-0) set the tone in the early moments of Sunday’s game as junior center Nnanna Egwu had a pair of blocks in the first nine minutes of the game.
Bradley, who shot a dismal 28.1 percent (9-of-32) in the first half, basically stopped trying to get into the lane and the Braves (3-1) settled for majority perimeter shots.
“I thought they played really physical and tough — especially in the lane,’’ Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “We were soft, it’s hard to come up with a way to spin it. We have to get tougher. I think the game was won in the lane.’’
And it wasn’t just on the defensive end that the Fighting Illini were winning the battle in the paint as they made 17 of their 28 field goals inside of the lane, including a pair of spectacular dunks from Rayvonte Rice.
Additionally, Illinois had 19 offensive rebounds which led directly to 13 second-chance points and the Fighting Illini outrebounded the Braves 49-25.
“The backboard was the entire story,’’ Ford said. “They were way more physical, and they were tougher to get to the balls.’’
Groce appreciated the compliments from the Bradley coach, who is both a good friend of the Illinois staff and the brother to Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford.
“Tough and smart certainly beats soft and stupid,’’ Groce said. “In over 19 years, I’ve seen a little bit of all four of those qualities. Tonight, I thought we were pretty tough and I thought we had some intelligence and purpose behind what we were doing. I thought guys were pretty locked in. They had a little edge to them. I thought our toughness was good.’’