BY CHAD DARE
Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce accomplished something on Tuesday night that only one other coach in school history has done.
And even though the first-year coach has seen his team start 11-0 after a hard-fought 64-54 win against Norfolk State at the Assembly Hall, he was taken full responsibility for a lackluster offensive performance by his Fighting Illini.
“At the end of the day, I just didn’t think over the course of 40 minutes that our effort level, our energy or our focus was where it has been,” said Groce, who became the first Illinois coach in 100 years to start his career 11-0. The only other coach to start 11-0 with the Fighting Illini was Fletcher Lane (1907-08), who started 12-0, but 11 of his 12 victories came against club teams. “That’s my responsibility. I didn’t have them ready to play. We will figure it out.
“Obviously, we feel fortunate to have won the game. But I didn’t think we played particularly well. We did enough to win.”
This is the third time this season that Illinois, rated No. 10 in the latest Associated Press Poll, has followed a big win with a less-than-desired performance. The Illini made 10-of-14 free throws in the final three minutes to secure their 21st-straight home victory against non-conference opponents.
“Coach likes to take responsibility for it, but he can’t come out there and play for us,” said Illinois senior Brandon Paul, who finished with a game-high 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds. “We have to maintain focus. We should have more energy at home than we do away. But it doesn’t seem like it’s been that way.
“Not taking anything away from Norfolk State, it seems like we play down to our competition. We need to play as hard as we did against Gonzaga, every game.”
And Illinois claimed this contest with its defense in the final eight minutes.
Norfolk State (6-6) scored just seven points down the stretch on 3-of-12 shooting and the Spartans committed four of their 14 turnovers during the stretch.
“With eight minutes to go, our guys amped it up and they understood where the guts of the game where and turned it up. Which is great,” Groce said. “But flip the coin and you could say, shouldn’t they be playing that hard all of the time. It’s a catch-22 a little bit.”
Senior D.J. Richardson, who missed part of the game with a high shoulder bruise, said that’s an issue for the seniors.
“We are just coming out flat, “ said Richardson, who finished with 11 points, including a critical 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 28 seconds left that sparked an ending 15-7 run for Illinois. “We are putting a lot of pressure on coach, we have to do a better job of getting guys ready.
“We have to have more energy.”
And just like the previous two let-down games, Illinois struggled with its 3-point shooting. The Illini, who are averaging 10.8 3-pointers per game, were just 6-of-23 behind the arc against the Spartans.
“We tried to run them off the 3-point line,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said. “We wanted to make them beat us with 2s rather than 3s.”
And the Illini did do much better inside of the 3-point line as they shot a season-low 35 percent (21-of-60).
So how did Illinois beat Norfolk State? With defense.
“When that happens, you have to find a way defensively and in rebounding, to grind it out. And that’s what I want to give our kids credit for,” Groce said. “If you told me before the game, they would shoot 38 (percent) from the field, 26 (percent) from 3, force 14 turnovers and be plus-7 on rebounding. I would have taken it and ran.
“In the second half, we competed on the defensive end and did a good job of rebounding and defending. And maybe at times, when our offense was ugly, we found a way to grind it out. Good teams do that. That’s a real positive.”
Norfolk State, which led by as much as five in the first half, was as close as 49-47 with 8:05 left in the contest.
“We gave a great effort for about 35 minutes, but they took control of the last five minutes of the basketball game,” Evans said. “We have to work on finishing basketball games. We had opportunities down the stretch to take the lead or tie the game up. We didn’t do and they were blown opportunities.”
Rashid Gaston led the Spartans with 12 points off the bench, while Pendarvis Williams finished with 11.
Up next for Illinois is a 5 p.m. game this Sunday against Eastern Kentucky, which is one of 14 teams still undefeated this season.
Illinois offers Big Ten mini-pack of tickets
With 11 straight wins to start the 2012-13 season, the Illinois Fighting Illini have climbed into a top-10 ranking for the first time in seven seasons.
And the opportunity to see the Fighting Illini in person is still possible. The University is offering a three-game Big Ten mini-pack of tickets for just $49, which is a 50 percent savings over individual game ticket prices. Games included in the offer are Minnesota on Jan. 9, Northwestern on Jan. 17 and Michigan on Jan. 27.
“I’ve heard from many people in the community that they are excited about this team, and we appreciate all the fans who support our program,” Groce said. “Every home game is critical to our success, so it’s important that we provide a home court advantage at the Assembly Hall that helps give our team the best chance to win.”
In addition to the Big Ten mini-pack, individual game tickets are also available. All tickets can be purchased online at FightingIllini.com, by calling the Illinois ticket office at (866) 455-4641 or by visiting the ticket office at the Assembly Hall.