BY CHAD DARE
It takes a certain type of player to hit a game-winning shot.
Illinois senior forward Tyler Griffey was ready, willing and able when Brandon Paul threw him the ball with about six seconds left in Sunday’s game with Gardner-Webb.
Griffey didn’t hesitate, the 6-foot-9 forward from Wildwood, Mo., buried a 25-foot 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left, giving the Fighting Illini a 63-62 victory over the Bulldogs.
It is the seventh straight win for Illinois, which moved into the Associated Press Top-25 Poll on Monday at No. 22.
“I give credit to Griffey,’’ said Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann. “Griffey stepped up and did what upperclassmen do.
“I thought he made some big plays in the second half.’’
The 3-pointer from the top of the key was all part of a 13-point second half for Griffey, who shared team-high scoring honors with Paul, D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand.
And where does this shot rank for Griffey?
“It’s up there,’’ he said. “Brandon made a great read and a great pass. I knew it was good as soon as I let it go.’’
But did he really expect to take the final shot?
“With the play coach (John) Groce drew up, all Brandon had to make a read,’’ Griffey said. “I knew they were going to switch it, and both guys went to Brandon and he made a great pass.’’
And would he have taken it before this year?
“I don’t know,’’ Griffey said. “It’s different, definitely. I’m glad I took it today.’’
The shot by Griffey came just seconds after Gardner-Webb’s Tashan Newsome banked in a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left.
But according to Holtmann, Newsome was also the guy that should have been guarding Griffey.
“Our call was black, which is a switch of the on-ball (screen) late,’’ Holtmann said. “My senior didn’t hear it and we had two guys on Paul.’’
Conversely, Groce said the same thing about the Bulldogs’ 3-pointer from Kevin Hartley with 52.8 seconds left that gave Gardner-Webb a 59-58 lead.
And that turned into his game-winning play.
“They came in low on it, we lost vision, they slipped it and made a 3,’’ he said. “We kind of ran the same thing. We flattened them out with our three other guys. I basically (told Brandon), if they double you or send two guys your way, you have Griffey. If they don’t, make a play.
“Brandon made a great read, threw it back to him and Griffey made a big-time shot.’’
On the previous possession, Paul hit a driving shot, giving Illinois a 60-59 lead as the two teams exchanged the lead four times in the final minute.
“It was a whale of a game,’’ said Holtmann, who received a lengthy hug from Groce.
The two coaches were teammates at Taylor University in Indiana, and Holtman was on Groce’s staff at Ohio.
“Obviously, I’ve got a lot of affection and care for John and his family and the staff here,’’ said Holtmann, noting the game with Illinois was scheduled before Groce was named the coach. “He was just really complimentary of our team and our approach and felt like he got one that was in the balance and maybe, certainly, could have gone either way.’’
And according to Groce, this contest was in doubt because Gardner-Webb (4-4) did two very important things.
“I thought they were the tougher team for the bulk of the game,’’ Groce said. “And, I thought they executed better than we did for the bulk of the game.
“They deserved it, they did. But having said that, as I told the guys in the lockerroom, we’re not going to give it back.’’
So, why did the Illini, who improved to 7-0, still have a chance to win the game on Griffey’s last second shot?
“Our older guys stepped up — seniors die hard,’’ said Groce, referring to Griffey, Paul, Richardson, Sam McLaurin and especially Bertrand, who is actually a redshirt junior.
“He might as well be one,’’ Groce added. “It wasn’t for him and his energy level off the bench, it could have been really ugly early.’’
Bertrand had seven points, three rebounds and a steal in the first half. Because of that, he played 18 of the 20 minutes in the second half, adding six points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“I was glad that I was able to come in and bring some energy to get the team back going,’’ Bertrand said.
And both Bertrand and Groce know that the Illini will need a better performance on Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Illinois will host Georgia Tech in an 8 p.m. game at the Assembly Hall.