Paul Stars Down Stretch For Cold Illini

Brandon Paul single-handedly led the Illini out of a second half morass to lift his team over a tough St. Bonaventure squad 48-43 in the Assembly Hall Wednesday night. Facing a mature defensive unit, the Illini had trouble scoring until Paul took over with drives, rebounds and free throws. The Illini are now 9-0 on the season.

It was a game only defensive coaches can love. The low-scoring, poor-shooting contest between Illinois and St. Bonaventure was difficult to watch, but Illini coach Bruce Weber is happy nonetheless.

,P>"You win games pretty and skillful like Saturday. And then if you're gonna be a good team, when the ball's not going in the hoop, you still have to guard and have energy and play your butts off. You find a way to win games ugly. This was an ugly game, but we found a way to win, which is so important.

"You don't feel great, but you still found a way to win. We learn from it and move on. We knew it would be a tough game."

Weber agrees the Illini suffered the predictable letdown after the fine Gonzaga win.

"I don't think there's any doubt, no matter what I said. I was hoping the Bonnies would be 5-1 so I could sell it a little better."

That may be true, but St. Bonaventure had something to do with the result. The Bonnies came to play. Even before the game began, one could see quality athletes determined and focused.

Head coach Mark Schmidt and at least three of his assistants yelled constantly from the bench. It is questionable whether their players heard what they said, but they were definitely uplifted by the fiery display.

Potential NBA draftee Andrew Nicholson flashed tremendous skill on both ends of the floor, and his teammates were not at all intimidated by the road game. The Bonnies double-teamed Illini center Meyers Leonard early, and Nicholson did an excellent job fronting him the rest of the game. Bonnie coach Mark Schmidt summarized the game afterward.

"I thought it was a great college basketball game. The offensive game wasn't there, but I thought it was two physical teams that played great defense. It was hard to score. As good a defensive team as Illinois is, you've got to cash in your opportunities. We didn't.

"I thought our guys gave great effort. To come in here and outrebound them by 10 and hold them to 31% from the field and do the job on Leonard, it gave us a shot, it gave us a chance. We just didn't finish it. Give Illinois credit, they made the plays at the end."

The Illini led most of the first half thanks to a hot beginning. Once they began to substitute, the offense stagnated. Encouraged, the Bonnies ramped up their defense. A 17-9 lead vaporized as the Illini went cold from the field. They limped to the break trailing 26-24.

It was even worse for the Illini second half. They scored only 5 points in the first 13 minutes as the Bonnies slowly but surely added to their lead. When the score reached 39-30, the Illini began to show some life. D.J. Richardson hit a big three, and Brandon Paul followed with a drive and dunk.

That was the beginning of a Paul explosion. After a Demetrius Conger driving bucket for St. Bonaventure, Paul hit one of two free throws, drove through the lane for a finish at the rim and repeated the play a moment later, plus an and-1 to tie the game at 41.

Leonard hit two free throws to give the Illini their first lead of the half. A Nicholson layin tied it back up. On the Illini's next possession, Leonard made two brilliant tap-outs to keep the ball in the hands of his teammates. They were then able to find him for a jump hook to provide a lead the Illini would not relinquish.

Paul then hit one of two free throws, grabbed a big board off a Nicholson miss and scored the last two points of the game on free throws. Illini fans have been waiting for Paul to explode, and they got their wish when the Illini needed it most. He said afterward he just didn't want to lose.

"I think I was just more focused. Meyers did a good job of getting me open. I got a ball screen and went to the basket. I made it a focus to get to the basket. I haven't been finishing layups as much as I wanted to, so I was happy about getting to the basket, drawing contact and making the layups."

Weber says he was at his wits end looking for plays that would work against tough man-to-man pressure. He kept trying until he found something.

"I think we tried every set that we have. I kind of pulled it out of the hat, and we went to it. You get three guys that can do stuff, Brandon, Sammie (Maniscalco) and Meyers, on one side and see if they can guard us. Brandon got a couple drives to the basket. Meyers hit the big shot after Nicholson hit the shot."

Paul led the Illini with 17 points, including 11 of the Illini's last 13 points. He added five rebounds, 5 assists, three steals and 10 MATTO points in undoubtedly his best all-around game. Guard mate D.J. Richardson was hot early with two bombs from the arc. He finished with 11 points.

Last year's team might have lost this game. Richardson believes there is a major difference this year.

"We've got better players and tougher defenders. They took a shot at us, and we found a way to bounce back at the end of the game."

He was also eager to praise Illini fans.

"The crowd did a good job of keeping a lot of energy, especially at the end of the game."

Weber agreed.

"I've got to give credit to the crowd. They were fantastic down the stretch. They really made a difference."

Both teams shot poorly from the field. Paul and Richardson were a combined 4 of 16 from the arc. No UI bench player scored. But the Illini had around 40 points on the MATTO play hard chart, and they doubled the points off turnovers.

"This was a gut-check game," Weber understates. "We have exams; practice yesterday was no noise, nothing. You stick a game in the middle of this whole thing, it's tough, especially after big wins. We knew it was gonna be tough; I didn't know it was gonna be this tough."

Weber agreed the Illini have more mental toughness than last year, and it is paying off.

"I'm hoping so. So far we've proven that. We've got some things going for us, but we still have to get better offensively."

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