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Illinois gives fans reason to cheer

Groce era starts with victory

Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) and Colgate's Clayton Graham reach for the ball during the teams' season opener Friday at Assembly Hall in Champaign. Illinois won 75-55.
Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) and Colgate's Clayton Graham reach for the ball during the teams' season opener Friday at Assembly Hall in Champaign. Illinois won 75-55.

CHAMPAIGN — The Assembly Hall crowd — led by the Orange Krush's vow to take an "Orange Hush" until 10 points were scored — remained silent for 4 minutes of the first half.

When Myke Henry hit a 3-pointer to provide the Illini with an early 12-5 lead Friday night, fans erupted into exuberant, pent-up applause.

For Illini fans, finding a reason to cheer has been a long time coming.

They are eager to feel optimistic about something, anything, after the pall cast on last season, which ended with 12 losses in 14 games and the firing of coach Bruce Weber.

With a new coach in John Groce and a new season under way, there is hope a turnaround is on the brink in Champaign. The 75-55 season-opening victory against Colgate was a good place to start.

Sterling graduate Joseph Bertrand had seven points and six rebounds off the bench for the Illini (1-0).

"To be honest, it's not about me," Groce said. "It's a privilege to coach at the University of Illinois. … Once the ball tips, we're coaching. It's about these guys."

The silence was a nod to Groce's alma mater, Taylor University, which follows the same tradition of quiet until the team reaches the 10-point mark. Fans also wore bald-head caps to honor Groce's hairless dome.

The rest of the night was an excuse to celebrate as the Illini breezed to a 1-0 start.

Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams led the way.

Paul scored 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting with eight rebounds, five assists and two steals. Abrams, a sophomore who pushed the pace, finished with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting with five assists.

Together they accounted for only five turnovers.

"I thought we took care of the ball and it started with these two guys," Groce said of the point guards.

The Illini used the perimeter to build an early lead, making 10 of 18 3-pointers before halftime and finishing by hitting 13 of 30, both numbers eclipsing last season's highs.

The offensive execution was not always on target (39.2 percent). But the Illini's hustle was what Groce had been preaching since his hiring as they outrebounded the Raiders 47-32, including 19-4 on offensive boards.

"We asked them to compete and play hard for 40 minutes," Groce said. "We asked them to play unselfishly. I think we took strides."

After a 14-14 tie at the start, Illinois pulled ahead with a 12-0 run and never let up.

Groce had kept his starters under wraps this week and said he still was tinkering with rotations late in week.

The starters were Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu in the post along with guards Paul, Abrams and D.J. Richardson. He substituted often, using an eight-man rotation.

Illinois 75, Colgate 55

Star of the game: Brandon Paul, Illinois, 20 points

Bertrand watch: 3-of-7, 7 points, 1 3-pointer, 6 rebounds, 1 steal in 21 minutes

Up next; St. Francis at Illinois, 7 p.m. Monday (

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