Illini eke out win against EKU, remain undefeated

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Illini eke out win against EKU, remain undefeated

CHAMPAIGN Someone had to come away from Assembly Hall without a perfect record Sunday night, and Illinois refusal to let Eastern Kentucky be that team kept their perfect season in tact. The Illini finished the 2012 portion of their home schedule with a 66-53 win over the Colonels, improving to 12-0 on the season.
The win was anything but easy for No. 10 Illinois, as the team matched its season high with 20 turnovers. It was the will of the Illini that helped them overcome EKU (9-1), coach John Groce said.
I was really, really proud of our effort, he said after the game. We had great energy, we played with toughness, we had a nastiness about us on the defensive end for the full 40 minutesI thought it was great.
The hosts showed more urgency early in the game than in previous home contests, but EKUs effort to turn over the Illini kept them off-balance. The Illinois defense held up, however, and with five minutes gone Brandon Paul drove the lane and dished to Sam McLaurin, whose dunk put Illinois ahead, 9-3.
The defense was strong for Illinois all game. EKU came into the game shooting 49.5 percent from the field (13th in the nation), but the Illini limited it to 30 percent shooting in the first half. Illinois also won the rebounding battle (42-23) and came up with nine blocks, four from Nnanna Egwu.
Egwu was all over the place defensively. His stat line doesnt do him justicehe was really locked in, as were most of our guys, Groce said.
The Colonels 1-3-1 zone defense was also impressive on Sunday. EKU came into the game second in the nation at forcing turnovers and used that ability to keep Illinois from getting into a rhythm. The Illini were able to maintain a lead, but unable to crack the zone and pull away from the visitors.
Turnovers, particularly offensive fouls, became more troublesome for Illinois as the first half wore on. Midway through the first the Illini had racked up nine turnovers, three on offensive fouls. Those errors allowed EKU to close the gap, 17-15, with just under eight minutes remaining.
They got in passing lanes, they were man conscious and good at denying, Groce said about the Colonels. Thats what they do, thats what theyre good at.
Joseph Bertrand's contributions helped Illinois overcome the oppositions tough defense, however. With starting point guard Tracy Abrams forced to the bench with two fouls in the first half, Bertrand went 3-for-4 from the field, scoring seven points and grabbed six rebounds. His hard work kept Illinois in front at the break, 25-20.
Abrams came back after halftime and made a big impact. He started the half with a steal and a layup to get Illinois going. From there the team went on an 11-2 run to grab their biggest lead, 36-22 at 15:15.
Sloppy play by the Illini led to four quick turnovers, however, and the gap was cut under ten a minute-and-a-half later.
The Illinois lead would get as low as four, after Corey Walden converted an and-one opportunity, bringing the score to 42-38. On the next possession, however, Abrams gave Illinois some breathing room by hitting a three.
Abrams put his team on his back from there, making a string of big plays of his own. With five-and-a-half minutes to go the sophomore grabbed a rebound and ran the length of the court to drop in a layup. He followed that up with a steal and a 3 on the next possession putting Illinois up by 14 again, 54-40.
Tracey had a look in his eye after sitting in first, Groce said. The point guard said sitting didnt add motivation, though.
Last game I sat out with two fouls too, he said. You just gotta stay positive and be in to the game. You cant be selfish, just gotta be there for the team and be in to the game.
Despite Abrams outburst, the Illini could not get comfortable, as back-to-back 3's by Tarius Johnson and Glenn Cosey closed the gap to eight a minute later. A dunk from Paul and a 3 from Tyler Griffey did allow Illinois to be a little more at ease, bringing the score to 61-48 with two-and-a-half minutes to play.
A few empty possessions for EKU forced the Colonels to foul, giving Illinois even more breathing room. The Illini made five of six free throws in the final minute to see out the win. Paul led all Illini with 17 points. He came just one rebound shy of the double-double, grabbing nine boards. Abrams finished with 13 and Bertrand had 11 points. D.J. Richardson dished out a career-high seven assists in the win.
Despite their issues with turnovers, Illinois finished the game shooting 50 percent from the field, matching their best output of the season. Paul was not satisfied with the excellent shooting though, wanting to see his teammates continue to play consistent all around.
We can make the most shots in the world but if we dont guard were going to end up trading baskets anyway, the senior guard said.
With the win Groce becomes the first Illinois coach in more than 100 years to start his Illinois career with 12 straight wins. To ensure a perfect non-conference season, however, Groces team will have to win a pair of neutral site games to close out the calendar year.
Illinois is back in action next week to take on Missouri in the Braggin Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. The Illini will then head to the United Center on Dec. 29 to play Auburn.

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

Aroldis Chapman is the ultimate baseball mercenary for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. The Cubs say they are going into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the superstar closer comes with off-the-field baggage and plans to cash in as a free agent this winter.

For all the talking points about being good neighbors and family friendly, the Cubs care about money and winning, which makes them just like any other professional sports franchise.

Chapman behaved in Yankee pinstripes, handled the New York market and performed with game-over efficiency, going 20-for-21 in save chances. The Cubs wanted a lefty with a 105-mph fastball and a 15.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched career rate, making a 4-for-1 trade by rationalizing that they would rather be with Chapman in the playoffs than against him.

So the Cubs – and not the first-place Nationals or even-year Giants – had to deal with the bad optics and the lost-in-translation moments before Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Chapman did not make a good first impression while getting questions about domestic violence and the 30-game suspension Major League Baseball imposed to start this season.

But if Chapman gets the last out in October, does it even matter if he’s a good guy?

“Ugh,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Was Ty Cobb wonderful? I mean, I don’t know. All these different people that I’ve read about – something happened with (the Sox) in, what was it, 1919?

“At the end of the day, I’m here to get to know him on our terms – me and him. (And) he’s been a great teammate from everybody I’ve read or discussed (it) with.

“That’s the lenses I’m looking at it through right now.”

[RELATED: Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take chance and close Chapman deal]

Chapman joined a team that began the day with a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This is all about what Chapman can do in October and how his presence can help the Cubs survive three postseason rounds.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted that the Cardinals haven’t scored a run off Chapman since September 2011, back when Tony La Russa managed a World Series team.

“Again, he did do his suspension,” Maddon said. “He has talked about it. He’s shown remorse. And then everybody else has their right to judge him as a good or bad person.

“That’s your right. But I know there are times where I’ve been less than perfect. I think we’ve all been less than perfect in particular moments that nobody’s ever known about. 

“I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he can be a very significant member. And he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you, I will embrace him.”

[MORE: Cubs make business decision to look beyond Chapman's domestic violence suspension]

Inside baseball’s conservative bubble, Maddon has to be the game’s most liberal manager, a hands-off, big-picture guy who lets his players run the clubhouse. The Cubs believe his positive vibes and presence will help Chapman’s transition.

“I’m probably the most non-judgmental person you’ve ever met,” Maddon said. “I don’t go in that direction. I do get upset sometimes when people jump to conclusions without knowing everything.

“(Gather) all the information for yourself and make your own opinion. Draw your own conclusion, as opposed to maybe hearing one thing and then all of a sudden jumping on a negative bandwagon.

“I want to get to know him, get to understand him, have good conversations with him. And then, maybe at that point, I could draw some conclusions. But never having been around him, it’s very hard for me to do that.”

Chapman’s Wrigley Field debut will be electric, the triple digits lighting up the huge video board. At that point, the focus should shift back onto baseball. But the equation doesn’t change in a bottom-line business. There is only one outcome that will truly make Cubs fans happy with this deal.

“They expect me to come here, do my job and try to guide us to the World Series,” Chapman said through coach/translator Henry Blanco. “Especially in this city, they haven’t won a World Series in a long time, so they want me to do everything I can to help us win.”

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

Joe Maddon's mere presence may have hurt the team he manages Tuesday night.

As the Cubs invaded U.S. Cellular Field for the final night on the South Side of this Crosstown series, Maddon's current team was tasked with facing one of his old friends.

James Shields pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay for seven years and the veteran right-hander took the hill for the White Sox Tuesday night, spinning a gem — 7.2 shutout innings allowing four singles and four walks.

After the game, Shields — nicknamed "Big Game James" by some — credited Maddon for his outing.

"I get amped up every game pretty much. But I always want to get amped up in front of my old manager," Shields said. "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He helped build me into who I am today. 

"I always want to go out there and show him, especially being 34 years old, that I’ve got this thing."

Maddon certainly noticed.

The Cubs manager admitted "that's what he looks like" when talking about Shields' outing.

The Cubs had pursued Shields in free agency prior to the 2015 season and came close to deal before the right-hander opted to sign with the San Diego Padres for four years and $75 million.

Part of the reason was Shields' competitiveness and desire to finish every game he starts.

"During the first part of the game, I went up to [John] Lackey and I said Shieldsy went to John Lackey Junior College at some point in his life," Maddon said. "I said I used to compare Shieldsy to you all the time back in Tampa Bay, whenever James would [refuse to come out of a game].

"So Johnny giggled about that. Very similar guys — highly competitive, believe they can beat anybody on any given day. You gotta love that about him. He's very good."

White Sox likely will place 2B Brett Lawrie on disabled list

White Sox likely will place 2B Brett Lawrie on disabled list

The White Sox will "probably" place second baseman Brett Lawrie on the disabled list before Wednesday’s Crosstown game at Wrigley Field, manager Robin Ventura said.

Lawrie initially was diagnosed with a tight left hamstring July 21 against the Detroit Tigers, causing a firestorm of speculation he had been traded when he was removed from the game. He was initially considered day-to-day after undergoing an MRI on Friday, and manager Robin Ventura said before both Monday and Tuesday’s games against the Cubs he could’ve been available in an emergency. 

But Lawrie suffered a setback sometime Tuesday, and with two games under National League rules at Wrigley Field requiring more bench pieces, Ventura didn’t want to head to Clark and Addison short-handed. 

“It just seemed like he was going backwards today, during the game, of his knee,” Ventura said. “There's no way you can go over there and play the National League rules with nobody on the bench.”

[MORE: Shields picks up bullpen as White Sox top Cubs again]

Infielder Carlos Sanchez was removed from Triple-A Charlotte’s game Tuesday night and is expected to replace Lawrie on the White Sox roster. 

Lawrie is hitting .248/.310/.413 with 12 home runs and 22 doubles over 94 games this season. 

Tyler Saladino has done well in his short stint in the starting lineup since Lawrie’s injury, going 4-15 with a walk. His walk-off single on Monday netted the White Sox their third win in what now is a four-game winning streak, the team’s first since May 6-9.