CHAMPAIGN As Myke Henrys shot finished its arc and swished through the net, giving Illinois a 12-5 advantage over Colgate, the Assembly Hall erupted.
The noise was of a level not heard in a long time in Champaign, certainly not since Bruce Webers Illini went 2-12 in his final 14 games last season. The eruption was even more impressive given the four minutes of silence that preceded it.
As if the transition from Weber to new Illinois head coach John Groce was not noticeable enough, the Orange Krush asked fans to observe silence an Orange Hush until Illinois scored its 10th point of the game. The hush was a reference to Groces alma mater, Taylor University, and their Silent Night ritual.
The effect at Assembly Hall was dramatic, with the crowd roaring to life, showing appreciation for a strong start by the Illini. While the ghost of Webers teams may not have been exorcised completely, Illinois 75-55 win over Colgate made sure the Groce era started properly.
The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish was to play more consistently than performance in our final preseason game, Groce said. We asked them to play compete and play hard in the forty minutes, and we asked them to play unselfishly, and I think we made strides in both areas.
The Illini came out shooting strong from the perimeter in the opening minutes and never let up. The team sunk four consecutive threes to open scoring and finished 13-of-30 from behind the line. The 43 percent outside shooting was a big factor in Illinois victory and Groce praised his players for their solid shooting.
After the first three minutes, I would say 15-of-18 threes were great looks, he said Weve got guys who can shoot the ballthese guys have worked hard this summer to earn right to take shots.
Weve got a lot of confidence in these guysthese guys can make shots and I want them taking good ones.
Inside the three-point arc, however, the Illini had some problems. Those problems caught up to them six minutes into the game, as the Raiders tied the game at 12 then again at 14.
However, senior Brandon Paul stepped up with the game tied. His up-and-under layup started a 12-0 run by Illinois, a run he would finish with a steal and another layup. They would follow it up with another 12-0 run, stretching the score to 35-16 with three minutes left in the half.
Illinois got threes from six players in the first half, including two each from Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and forward Tyler Griffey. Their strong outside shooting, along with 43 percent shooting overall in the first half, helped Illinois claim a 43-25 lead over the visitors at halftime.
The Illini kept rolling in the second half, creating a 20-point cushion and maintaining it throughout the frame. Groces group pushed the pace of the game and kept the pressure on Colgate.
Part of Illinois speed came from the rapid substitution utilized by Groce. Nine players got significant playing time on Friday night, helping wear down Colgate late in the game. The players seemed to have no issue with the substitutions, though, and played unselfishly when they were on the floor.
When Im out there Im going to give it what I got, Abrams said. I want to win, Im sure those guys want to win.
Shooting from the perimeter dropped off in the second half, but the team got better in the paint. After scoring just eight points inside during the first half, Illinois racked up 18 in the second half. Griffey, Nnana Egwu and transfer Sam McLaurin helped the Illini gain an edge over the Raiders in the paint with physical play in the second half.
Despite the increased effort down low, Groce said he would still like to see better play in the paint specifically on put backs. Illinois finished the game with 19 offensive rebounds, many of which came on unsuccessful attempts to tap the ball in near the hoop.
We were 16-of-34 down in the paint. We gotta slow down a little bit in there and finish a little better, Groce said.
Illinois finished the game with an astonishing 74 field goal attempts, making 29 of those shots for 39 percent overall.
Paul led Illinois with 20 points, adding eight rebounds and five assists. He said working hard with the coaches in practice, as well as playing with an unselfish group, helped him find his rhythm.
They gave me confidence to shoot anywhere, the senior said.
Abrams finished the game with 13 points and Griffey scored 10 in the win. Richardson had nine points and led the team with eight rebounds. McLaurin and Henry each had seven rebounds.
Illinois also limited turnovers, beating Colgate 12-17 in a big turnaround from some of the results from preseason games and in practice. The change made Groce very happy, at least for tonight.
Overall I was very pleased with our effort, our attitude and our unselfishness, he said after picking up his first win as the Illinois head coach.
Earlier in the week, after a bad practice, Groce indicated he would have difficulty sleeping because of the lingering worry. After the Illinis season opening win over Colgate, however, his mind should be as quiet as the Assembly Hall before Henrys three.