BY CHAD DARE
Anyone sitting within 10 feet of the Assembly Hall court on Saturday had to beware.
Illinois basketball players were flying all over the place during the Fighting Illini’s 74-55 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Senior forward Tyler Griffey went sprawling for a loose ball in front of the team’s bench, sophomore guard Tracy Abrams slid into the Ohio State bench trying to extend a possession and senior guard D.J. Richardson crashed into the scorer’s table, bouncing the ball off of Ohio State’s Sam Thompson.
After each play, Illini coach John Groce and the rest of the team bench was up on their feet with encouragement.
“I love it,’’ Groce said. “Those are toughness plays. They are passion and inspiring plays.
“Anytime a guy sacrifices his body to make a play for his team that’s the highest level of teamism — if that’s even a word.’’
And while the first-year coach is creating his own vocabulary, there is no doubt that those type of plays were a major difference between Illinois losing it’s Big Ten opener at Purdue and beating the eighth-rated team in the nation by 19 points.
“I was disappointed with our toughness on Wednesday night, for the first time all year,’’ said Groce, admitting that playing with high effort and toughness isn’t an automatic for any player. “The guys did it today. We have done it a lot all season — it’s not this is the first day we did it.
“We got back to work to get back to who we are.’’
And the Illini (14-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten) got back to who they were during practices on Thursday and Friday.
“We compete every day in practice,’’ said Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, who sporting a few ice bags on his legs. “We had better carry over to the game. We not only executed on offense today, but we defended and rebound better.’’
And what about their physical drills in practice?
“There is a lot of diving on the floor, taking charges and things that basically carry over into the game situations,’’ said Paul.
And according to Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, a native of Hoopeston, that is typical of Groce.
“He has done a tremendous job,’’ said Matta, who had Groce as his assistant coach for eight seasons. “He has these guys playing at a high level.
“As I told him when he took the job, you just walked into a heck of a situation. You have players and they have been coached. He’s done a tremendous job of putting his stamp on it.’’
The Buckeyes (11-3, 1-1) had troubles early with turnovers, allowing the Illini to open a double-digit lead (25-11) in the first 10 minutes.
Illinois scored 16 of its 37 first-half points after Ohio State offensive miscues.
“Our 16 turnovers,’’ said Matta when asked what he saw on the postgame statistical sheet. “We don’t turn the ball over. That was probably the biggest thing. We weren’t even getting shots up because of our turnovers.’’
The Buckeyes came into Saturday’s contest averaging just over 10 turnovers a contest and they had 11 in the first half.
“We got some points off of turnovers that ignited us,’’ Groce said. “In addition to that, our execution was good when we were in the half-court offense.’’
Illinois, which ranks third in college basketball with 9.5 3-pointers per game, was 14-of-19 inside of the arc in the first half and for the game, the Illini were 20-of-31 from 2-point range and 8-of-27 from 3.
“We are a team that is capable of making a lot of 3s, but when that doesn’t happen — we have to pick up other aspects of our game,’’ said Paul, who had 19 points and a pair of 3-pointers.
And two of the biggest other aspects of the Illinois victory on Saturday were defense and rebounding.
Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas scored a game-high 24 points, but the junior forward got his offense with 21 shots.
“I think we had better pride on defense,’’ Paul said. “We usually do a good job of contesting shots and we wanted (Thomas) to take a lot of shots to get his points.’’
But the biggest difference between Thomas and Paul on Saturday was their supporting casts.
Ohio State had only one other player reach double figures with Craft getting 11; while Illinois had four guys with 12 or more.
“We weren’t executing at the level we needed to execute at,’’ Matta said. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t get into that flow.’’
After Paul’s 19, there was Nnanna Egwu with a career-high 16, Tracy Abrams had 13 and Joseph Bertrand came off the bench with 12.
“It’s all about getting a good flow on offense,’’ said Egwu. “We had good motion. We played very well and we passed the ball very well.’’
The victory was the first Big Ten Conference victory for Groce and it came against his former boss, but that didn’t matter to the first-year coach.
“Every game counts the same — win or lose,’’ he said.
But, it did come before the first sellout crowd at the Assembly Hall since last year’s loss to Wisconsin.
And it was the largest margin of victory against the top-10 opponent since Illinois beat No. 2 UCLA 110-83 on Dec. 4, 1964.
“We just need this game in general,’’ Paul said. “People got crazy after our last loss. It’s a long season. This is just one game.’’
And the next one is just as big for the Illini as they will host the ninth-rated Minnesota Golden Gophers in an 8 p.m. game on Wednesday.