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.

How a fan's kind gesture surprised Mark Buehrle on his big day

How a fan's kind gesture surprised Mark Buehrle on his big day

It’s one of the more iconic moments in White Sox history, and now Mark Buehrle has a key piece of memorabilia after a fan’s kind gesture.

Already overwhelmed by a series of gifts from the White Sox on Saturday afternoon, Buehrle was in disbelief when 17-year-old Tommy Maloney walked onto the field during a number-retirement ceremony and presented him with the flipped-through-the-legs ball from 2010 Opening Day.

The memento was one of four gifts Buehrle received from the White Sox along with a new truck, a four-seat All-Terrain Vehicle and a personalized piece of art created by White Sox outfielder Ron Kittle commemorating many of the highlights of the pitcher’s White Sox career. It was just another part of an overwhelming, emotional day for Buehrle, who was honored for his 12 seasons in a White Sox uniform.

“Pretty cool,” Buehrle said. “I don’t recall signing it for him when it happened. I don’t really remember where it went. But one, for him to give that up, that was pretty awesome.”

Maloney’s father, Matt, contacted the White Sox earlier this month to see if Buehrle wanted to meet with the fan who had the ball from a moment in White Sox history that has been replayed thousands upon thousands of times.

The Maloneys also reached out to the White Sox back in 2010, too. They informed the club they had the ball that Buehrle retrieved and flipped through his legs to Paul Konerko, who caught it with a barehanded to retire Cleveland’s Lou Marson in the fifth inning of the April 5, 2010 contest. Buehrle autographed the ball in 2010, but neither he nor the White Sox asked for Tommy Maloney, who was 8 at the time, to hand it over.

“At that point it’s just a cool ball, it’s not part of White Sox history,” said Brooks Boyer, White Sox vice president of sales and marketing.

As he looked for a unique artifact for Buehrle to offer another layer to Saturday’s ceremony, Boyer came across Matt Maloney’s most recent email. He definitely thought Buehrle would have interest in reuniting with the fan who held a key artifact from a play that has become legendary around these parts over the years.

But Boyer also asked if the Maloneys would want to donate the ball to Buehrle.

“We didn’t have the unique thing,” Boyer said. “We just didn’t have it.

“Here it is.”

How it had gotten in Tommy Maloney’s hands in the first place was interesting enough. The Munster, Ind., high schooler said his father got tickets for the 2010 season opener and he left school early to watch Buehrle, his favorite pitcher as a kid. The seats were in the first row behind the far right edge of the White Sox dugout, the same ones he was in for Saturday’s ceremony.

After the improbable play to steal a hit from Marson, Buehrle fell to his knees, which brought manager Ozzie Guillen out of the dugout. Somehow Guillen retrieved the ball and upon returning to the dugout, flipped it to Maloney, who had earlier asked him for a ball several times. Even though it was a prized possession, Tommy Maloney said he’d have no problem surrendering it again if he were asked.

The White Sox rewarded Maloney for his sacrifice as club chairman Jerry Reinsdorf determined that the youngster would present Buehrle with the ball on the field. But the White Sox didn’t tell Maloney he would present the ball until Saturday, surprising him with the news about an hour before the game.

“It’s awesome the way it played out,” Maloney said. “He’s such a great guy. He was hugging me in the dugout. He looked at me when I went up there to give him the ball and said, ‘Give me a hug.’ ”

Maloney not only stood on the field before the ceremony, he had a chance to briefly meet Buehrle in the dugout. He also received another autographed baseball. And after he was applauded by the sellout crowd, several fans stopped by Maloney’s seat to pose for a picture.

Buehrle was touched by the gesture.

“I was like, ‘Brooks, we’ve got to do something here,’ ” Buehrle said. “’He can’t just give the ball and walk out of here empty-handed.’ So I ended up signing him a ball and I don’t know if we have something else in mind, but it was pretty awesome.”

Jon Lester, Cubs rotation trends in right direction with win over Marlins

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USA TODAY

Jon Lester, Cubs rotation trends in right direction with win over Marlins

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – his 75-mph curveball flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground.  

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work on Saturday after J.T. Realmuto’s three-run homer in the first inning. This is the stuff, determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the pressures of playing at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that kind of performance to buy time for their young hitters, survive a brutal schedule and weather a series of injuries. 

A 5-3 win pushed the Cubs to 38-36 as Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) and the overall rotation continue to trend in the right direction.