Groce: We went too much 'hero' ball
CHAMPAIGN – John Groce made a bold play on Sunday, benching Illinois’ top scorer Brandon Paul. His gamble did not pay off, as Wisconsin completed a season sweep of the Illini with a 74-68 win at Assembly Hall.
“We had to make a statement that it’s not OK to have the defensive efficiency we’ve had, and we’re going to play the guys who grade out,” Groce said about the decision to bench Paul.
He said that he saw improvement defensively in stretches from the Illini, but overall he did not see enough for his team to earn a win.
“We had no backside help, I don’t think our screen defense was very good…the guys have got to trust the system more and trust each other more. It’s a team game,” Groce added.
Illinois shot 43 percent from the field but made just two 3-pointers on 13 attempts in the loss. The Badgers had a lower shooting percentage than Illinois, 42 percent, but made up the difference at the free throw line, where they made 28 of 42 attempts.
Coach Bo Ryan said he was unfazed by the different starting lineup for Illinois.
“I’m never surprised. In my 41st year of coaching throw whatever you want at me,” he said.
His team seemed to handle the new-look Illini well. Ben Brust paced the visitors, scoring a game-high 20 points, including two 3-pointers. Frank Kaminsky, coming off the bench, also did well for Wisconsin, scoring 19 points.
Joseph Bertrand, Paul’s replacement in the starting lineup, had a solid game, leading the Illini in scoring (17) and grabbing seven rebounds.
The game started slow, with neither team able to break the deadlock for nearly three minutes. Illinois’ first points came in impressive fashion, as D.J. Richardson skied over Jared Berggren for a dunk to grab a slender lead. That lead disappeared almost immediately, as Ryan Evans made the most of an and-one play to put Wisconsin ahead 3-2.
The score would remain 3-2 until 14:22, when Joseph Bertrand sunk a hook shot from just outside the lane. Neither team made more than one field goal in the first five minutes of the game; Illinois shot 1-7 from the field and Wisconsin shot just 1-9.
Shooting improved for both teams after the sluggish opening, and Wisconsin was the first to claim an advantage in the game. The Illini never allowed the guests to make a dominating run, however, and as the clock ticked toward 10 minutes to play in the first Nnanna Egwu put his stamp on the game.
The big sophomore started his great run of play with a ferocious block, he followed that up with a turn-around jumper and capped the run with an alley-oop layup to bring Illinois within one, 14-13. Richardson drained a three on the next Illinois possession to give Illinois its first lead since the opening basket, 16-14.
The lead was not sustainable, however. After a brief scoring drought for both teams, Brust hit a 3 to put his team back in front. The Badgers used their strong rebounding to continue to add to their lead. Their 23-15 rebounding advantage, along with a contested shot-clock call that went Wisconsin’s way, helped the guests put Illinois in a 33-24 hole at halftime.
Wisconsin got the chance to increase their lead immediately in the second half thanks to a technical on John Groce after the buzzer had gone. Brust would miss both free throws, however, wasting the opportunity.
It was all Illinois for the next few minutes, as the home team started the second half with a 6-2 run. The hot start was capped by another alley-oop from Abrams to Egwu, this one slammed home by the center. The run was not enough to grab a lead, though, and a Brust three just after the under-16 media timeout gave Wisconsin a 38-30 lead.
Brust’s 3 was the beginning of an 8-0 run for the guests. Just one minute after that shot, at 14:30, Frank Kaminsky drained a three to give the Badgers a 13-point lead. With the sizeable advantage there was no stopping Wisconsin. Groce said his team lost the game in the second half because of poor defense.
“Our offense was pretty good, we missed some layups…missed a dunk…but all in all, I’m focused on the defensive end. Tonight we gave up 56 percent [shooting] in the second half,” he said. “They were in the double bonus with 8 min to go. Unfortunately our answer when we’re playing behind is to foul.”
Thanks to free throw shooting, the Badgers’ lead was only below 10 points for 30 seconds from 14:30 to 1:30 in the second half. A late push by the Illini would cut into the lead some, but the Badgers never had reason to worry.
Illinois got a good performance from Bertrand, who had a stretch in which he accounted for five of Illinois’ six field goals, but the effort on the defensive end from the Illini lacked. As has been the case in several of Illinois’ recent games, when the defense let down, the offense had no room to go on a run. This struggle let Wisconsin easily play out the final minutes of the game.
Illinois faces a tough slate of games in the next week, with Indiana coming to Champaign followed by a trip to Minnesota. Egwu, who scored 14 and grabbed seven rebounds, said the team had to play better as a unit in order to get a good result from those games.
“We have to play harder, that’s the main thing,” the center said. “It’s a mentality. At some point we can’t accept the way they scored.”