Illini sluggish in home victory over Norfolk State
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois had talked about approaching Tuesday's game with maturity, avoiding an emotional letdown and taking Norfolk State seriously.
The only thing that went according to plan was the outcome.
A day after ascending to No. 10 in the AP poll and 3 days after beating a previously undefeated Gonzaga, Illinois (11-0) looked more like the underdog Tuesday night in a 64-54 victory over the Spartans.
"Over the course of 40 minutes, I don't think our effort, energy level, our focus was where it has been," coach John Groce said.
Illinois shot a season low 35 percent (21 of 60), made only 6 of 23 3-pointers and hit only 16 of 27 free throws, allowing the Spartans to stay in the game from start to nearly the finish.
"I want to give them credit in the second half," Groce said. "I thought we competed on the defensive end. We found a way to grind it out."
The Illini are developing some unsettling patterns.
After beating Butler to win the Maui Invitational, Illinois struggled upon returning home to squeak by Gardner-Webb. And now after beating then-No. 10 Gonzaga, the Illini were sluggish against the Spartans (6-6) at Assembly Hall.
"I better figure it out," Groce said. "I have to do a better job of getting them ready to play."
After scoring 35 points against Gonzaga to earn national player of the week honors, Brandon Paul scored 14 points on 3 of 10 shooting. He was 0-for-4 in the second half.
There were aspects of the game Groce did like, though.
The Illini held Norfolk State to 38.2 percent shooting and they grabbed 17 offensive rebounds out of 43 total boards.
Illinois went up by 10, 39-29, in the second half by starting with a 7-0 run but the Spartans' shot their way back into the game. D.J. Richardson scored on a driving layup and Sam McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu each made two free throws to go up 60-52 with 31 seconds to play.
"You can look at it as the last 8 minutes you really amped it up," Groce said. "Or you can flip the coin and say, 'Shouldn't they be playing that hard all the time?' It's a catch 22."
The game saw two collisions that saw Illini players flattened on the court.
Point guard Tracy Abrams appeared to injure his right ankle as he limped off the court after colliding in midair with a Norfolk State player with 3:23 remaining. He later returned.
Richardson returned in the second half to score seven of his 11 points after he was knocked down running into a Norfolk State player and hurting his shoulder late in the first half.
Star of the game: Brandon Paul, Illinois 14 points
Bertrand watch: 9 points, 7 rebounds
Up next: Eastern Kentucky at Illinois, 5 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU)