BY CHAD DARE
Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand entered the summer wanting to expand his game.
The junior from Sterling spent hours in the gym working on his shot – especially his 3-point shot.
All of that time is paying dividends this season. Bertrand came off the bench to personally ignite and fuel a 10-0 second-half run as the 22nd-rated Fighting Illini improved to 8-0 with a 75-62 win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the 14th Annual ACC/Big East Challenge.
“Coach has us shooting a lot of free throws, everyone had to make 11,000 or more,” Bertrand said. “I think that really helped me with my shooting and skill development.
“They also had me working a lot on 3s – step back 3s and off the dribble 3s. Those really helped my confidence.”
And for the second game in a row, Bertrand provided the necessary spark to keep Illinois undefeated on the season as the Fighting Illini won their fourth straight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and they are 7-7 in the history of competition between the two leagues.
His improvement didn’t surprise Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory.
“He brings a lot of energy off the bench. He is a great athlete. He is just streaky enough to be dangerous. And he is playing with a lot of freedom and confidence, right now,” Gregory said. “Early in his career, he was just an athletic, slasher and driver. Obviously, he spent a lot of time working on his perimeter shooting and so forth.
“If he gets really consistent, he will be a quality option. He was a highly recruited player. You can see the package he brings to the table, and that is starting to develop and grow.”
Bertrand’s personal 10-0 run started with a driving layup with 6 minutes, 26 seconds left pulling Illinois within 54-52 of Georgia Tech. On the next two possessions, the 6-foot-6 junior drilled back-to-back 3-pointers giving the Illini the lead for good at 58-54. But he wasn’t done yet.
Illinois senior Brandon Paul came up with a steal and Bertrand finished on the offensive end with an acrobatic layup bringing all 12,224 at the Assembly Hall to their feet.
“It was a definitely a momentum builder,” said Paul, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. “When Joe hit those 3s, I saw the confidence in his eyes.
“And then he had the loopy loop ridiculous layup, that you will probably see on SportsCenter. We see that every day.”
That 10-0 run was part of a 21-4 run for Illinois in the final 9:09 of the game.
“Defense ignited our offense during 21-4 run,” Groce said. “When we defend like that, and when we get stops, we can get out and run. We can points on the board in a hurry. And I thought that what happened during the 21-4 run to end the game.”
And how does he feel about bring Bertrand off the bench?
“I have a lot of confidence. He always competes. Joe, until you get to know him, he can sometimes come off as a quiet guy. But Joe has big-time energy,” Groce said. “I never ever, very rarely will watch practice film or game film and say Bertrand is not playing hard.
“He made some big plays on the offensive end and really ignited the 21-4 run.”
Joining Bertrand and Paul in double figures for Illinois were seniors Tyler Griffey (14 points) and D.J. Richardson (14).
Kammeon Holsey came off the bench to lead Georgia Tech (4-2) with 14 points, while Mfon Udofia and Jason Morris each contributed 10.
The Illini are idle until next Tuesday when Illinois hosts Western Carolina in a 7 p.m. contest at the Assembly Hall.