Illini make noise from perimeter in win

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Illini make noise from perimeter in win

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.

Fire looking to build on Houston win

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Fire looking to build on Houston win

The Chicago Fire slogged through the first third of the season with just two wins, but the 1-0 win against Houston on Saturday offered some hope.

That hope comes not just in the result, but in the way the Fire played.

The 20 shots was the most for the Fire this season and the seven on target was second to only the season opener. It was probably the Fire's best performance of the season when adding in the solid defensive performance that was absent back on March 6.

There are still things that the Fire need to improve on though. The Fire probably should have converted more of those chances and the Dynamo had 62.9 percent of the possession.

“I’m absolutely sure that at some point of the season all the pieces will come together," coach Veljko Paunovic said during Tuesday's conference call with media. "We will start performing much better and we will have more offensive outcome and obviously we have to keep our defensive good performance."

So now that the Fire had a decent performance and result, the question becomes can the team build on it?

“I think we have to build on this win," goalkeeper Sean Johnson said after the game. "I think any type of positivity in this time you have to grab and you have to run with it."

It must be said that Houston is down near the bottom of the league's standings and the Dynamo are now 0-6 on the road. With that in mind, beating Houston should have been more of an expectation, but if it gives a confidence boost to the Fire that may be all that matters.

It won't be as easy against Portland, the defending MLS Cup champions. However, a win against the Timbers would start to make the MLS standings less cringe-worthy for Fire fans ahead of the Copa America break.

"We believe that winning the game against Houston will help us to come to this game with more confidence, better prepared and that’s something that we have to work on this week," Paunovic said. "We believe that actually it’s a great moment for us to finish the first part of the season winning against a very good team, at least have a very good performance.”

On the injury front, Paunovic said that David Accam is still at full strength and ready to return after being suspended for the Houston match. Gilberto is still nursing a minor hamstring injury, but has been training with the team. Michael Harrington and Collin Fernandez are nearing returns, but may still be out Saturday. John Goossens will be out Saturday, but Paunovic said he expects him to be back after the break.

White Sox try to slow down skid as they battle the Royals on CSN

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White Sox try to slow down skid as they battle the Royals on CSN

The White Sox take on the Kansas City Royals on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Danny Duffy

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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Cubs don’t see Cardinals as ‘big brother’ in rivalry anymore

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Cubs don’t see Cardinals as ‘big brother’ in rivalry anymore

ST. LOUIS – Jake Arrieta’s breakdown of his performance sounded like something out of the maybe pile for Joe Maddon’s next T-shirt idea: “I picked a good day to be sh---y.”

The Cubs ace then messed with a reporter who asked a follow-up question after Wednesday’s 9-8 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, wondering if Arrieta would study anything in particular after giving up four runs in a regular-season start for the first time in 11-plus months…or stick with the same routine.

“Well,” Arrieta said, “I’ll probably, maybe, throw left-handed or underhand.”

Arrieta may have some underlying issues with his timing and command, but the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner is still 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA. By Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration, and Maddon’s second season in the dugout, the Cubs now have first-division problems. 

Whatever turbulence the team with the best record in baseball may have experienced during a 4-5 road trip through Milwaukee, San Francisco and St. Louis, the Cardinals scored eight runs on Arrieta Day and still lost. While the Cubs have already won two series this season at Busch Stadium before Memorial Day weekend, after eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs last October.    

“For the first three-and-a-half years when we were in Chicago, it just felt like they were the big brother,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They controlled the game. They controlled what was going on, the tempo of the game. They were the more talented team, the more experienced team. 

“Now we’re two very good teams playing. And whoever plays better that night is going to win the game. I think there’s something really refreshing about that when you come in here. We know we’re good. We know they’re good.

“We know that there’s a lot of good teams in the National League and we match up well with them.”

The Cubs ambushed St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez for six runs in the second inning, getting the kind of bounces the Cardinals are used to seeing here.

Jason Heyward’s two-out, two-run double hit first base and bounced up the right-field line, and maybe luck will change for the $184 million player who turned down the St. Louis core. Ben Zobrist is still on fire, getting two hits that inning, including a bases-loaded, two-run single that skipped in between diving first baseman Matt Adams and diving second baseman Kolten Wong.

“I wouldn’t say (things) are shifting,” said Kris Bryant, who blasted what turned out to be the game-winning homer, a three-run shot off Seung Hwan Oh in the sixth inning. “It’s just really competitive baseball. Lately, we’ve come out on top. They play us hard every game. It’s going to make for a lot of fun games in the future.”

When it looked like the Cardinals might stage one of their last at-bat comebacks, Hector Rondon didn’t buckle in front of a sellout crowd (45,465). The Cubs closer roared back after allowing back-to-back singles to begin the ninth inning, striking out Yadier Molina and Randal Grichuk swinging and knocking down the ball pinch-hitter Jedd Gyorko hit back to the mound for the final out and his eighth save. The Cardinals are now a third-place team that’s one game over .500 at 24-23.

“Of course, I totally think they’re going to be there at the end,” Maddon said. “They’re really good. They have a very good offensive club. They need to get their pitching straightened out. They have a good bullpen. And they just play hard. They play hard every second of the game.

“You can never walk away from that. They have some really good players in skill positions. They’re going to get (shortstop Jhonny) Peralta back, I think, at some point, and that’s going to make a big difference for them. And then the problem’s going to be: Where do you put (Aledmys) Diaz?

“They have some nice problems on the horizon.”  

The Cubs (31-14) now have an eight-game lead over the Cardinals in the division and a 9-3 combined record against St. Louis and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the other two heavyweights in the Central.  

“It’s going to be close to the end,” Arrieta said. “The Pirates and the Cardinals – these guys are going to continue to win games, in and out of our division. We just have to do our job to try and separate that gap when we have the ability to do so, because we know they’ll be close on our heels to the very end.”