CHAMPAIGN – Illinois had used last-second shots to beat Hawaii and Gardner-Webb, but the team had hoped to avoid such drastic measures against an opponent that entered the game already saddled with three losses.
No. 13 Illinois (9-0) proved they know how to survive ugly, dodging another scare to beat Western Carolina 72-64 to remain unbeaten.
Coach John Groce questioned the team’s toughness on the sideline with some choice words in the second half as the Illini missed what seemed like dozens of shots under the basket and allowed the Catamounts to outrebound Illinois 41-34, pulling down 18 offensive rebounds. Illinois also made only 13 of 19 free throws.
Illinois starters Tyler Griffey, D.J. Richardson, Nnanna Egwu, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams combined to shoot 16 of 46. After shooting just 34.3 percent in the first half, the Illini finished the game hitting 40 percent.
Richardson and Abrams came up with some game-saving plays down the stretch.
After allowing the Catamounts to tie the score at 54, D.J. Richardson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to provide the Illini with a 62-56 cushion with a little more than 3 minutes remaining.
The baskets were part of a 12-2 run by the Illini to put them up by 10. But even after extending the lead to 10, Western Carolina hit back-to-back 3-pointers with 30.9 seconds left to trail only 70-64. Richardson made two free throws to seal the victory.
Illinois had hoped a much needed break between games would freshen their legs. Instead they were as stiff and stale as they've been this season.
Despite its rebounding effort, Western Carolina (3-6) was just as ugly offensively. The Catamounts turned the ball over 22 times and shot only 38.5 percent.
After being held scoreless before halftime, Western Carolina point guard Trey Sumler scored eight points in the second half. He hit back-to-back 3-pointers – one following a missed dunk by Joseph Bertrand – and a three-point play by Preston Ross tied the game 40-40 with 13:29 remaining.
Ross led the Catamounts with 17 points, while Paul led the Illini with 14 points.
The Illini had survived worse first halves, including only 24 points and 33.3 percent shooting in the first half of the victory against Gardner-Webb and 28 points on 29.6 percent shooting the first half against Hawaii.
Illinois has larger challenges looming. The Illini face No. 10 Gonzaga in Spokane, Wa., on Saturday.
This will be the second trip west for the Illini, who won the Maui Invitational championship last month.
Star of the game: Brandon Paul, Illinois, 14 points
Bertrand watch: 3-for-5, 7 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 4 turnovers in 16 minutes
Up next: Illinois at Gonzaga, 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)