Bertrand's Floaters Lift Illini Over Nebraska

The Fighting Illini basketball team pulled out a close 59-54 victory over Nebraska at the Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon. But not before the Cornhuskers put a major scare into Illini Nation. Joe Bertrand was the hero for the Illini, scoring 25 points to keep them in the game when others were struggling.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber predicted a low scoring game, but all he cares about is a win.

"I couldn't be more happy for our guys. It's a beautiful game, a beautiful day. We found a way to win. We thought it might be 20-18. We actually scored more than that, so that was a positive thing."

Weber's concerns centered around Nebraska's defense, the fact Sam Maniscalco didn't play, and D.J. Richardson available for limited minutes due to a stiff wrist. Nebraska successfully double teaming Meyers Leonard in the post was a major factor as well. The result was reduced offensive efficiency.

"You win a game without your starting point guard and without your starting two-guard, and with Meyers (Leonard) floating around someplace in the Assembly Hall. They get their two guys back, and you still find a way to win."

Injured Husker stars Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley surprised the Illini by playing more than 20 minutes each, and they contributed 15 points. Given the other complications, how did the Illini pull it out?

Weber says strong defense down the stretch and reduced turnovers second half were important. But there was one overriding factor no one can overlook. Joe Bertrand had his best game as an Illini, and the Illini needed every one of his 25 points.

"Joe with another superman performance. Somebody's got to step up and make plays. Joe stepped up big-time."

Bertrand hit 11 of 12 shot attempts, most on driving floaters in the lane. He is shooting better than 70% over his last five games and is proving to be an invaluable member of the team. Brandon Paul expressed pleasure at how Bertrand is stepping up.

"It's huge. We've got great players on the team. He stepped up for us; we had guys injured. He's the player I always knew he was, he just needed time to fill out and get more confidence. When you've got a few go-to guys, it will be tough on our opponents."

Paul is also grateful for the redshirt sophomore's perseverance.

"The kid's a player. He had a minor setback his freshman year. He's one of the most patient guys I've seen. If I was in his situation, I don't know how I would have taken it. He's just grown so much and keeps learning, keeps getting better. He's hard to guard."

Confidence has long been absent from Bertrand's game, but his recent success is helping put an end to that.

"It's definitely a confidence builder to get out there and contribute with my team. When I wasn't playing with them, it was hard watching them. But I learned a lot sitting on the bench, so when I got out there I could contribute and be a part of the team."

The game was touch-and-go throughout. The first five minutes of the game showed more turnovers than points. The lead exchanged hands as both teams went on runs. Nebraska scored the last 7 points to take a 25-22 lead into halftime.

The second half was more of the same, with neither team going up by more than five points. It was 54-all after Husker point guard Brandon Richardson deposited two free throws. Bertrand then hit one of his patented driving floaters, and Nebraska's Toney McCray helped out by missing both of his free throws.

Paul made perhaps the biggest play of the game at that point, stealing the ball on the perimeter and driving for a layup. Nebraska was called for an intentional foul, and Paul hit two big free throws to give the Illini a four point lead. Leonard later hit one of two freebies for the final 59-54 tally.

The only other Illini in double figures was Paul with 11, although he needed 13 shots for his four buckets. Paul grabbed 6 rebounds and handed out 3 assists, and he had only one turnover in 39 minutes. He also was a major factor again defensively, limiting Husker scoring threat Bo Spencer. Paul was happy with the win but not his game.

"I think I played horrible. We found a way to grind it out and win against a good team."

Leonard added just seven points and 4 rebounds as Nebraska frustrated him when he received entry passes in the post. While the Illini need him to play better and find ways to counter opposing defenses, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said doubling up on Leonard was a necessary evil.

"You give up something when you do that. We were trying to double team the ball on the catch. I do think that we did a decent job. He's a great player, and I think his greatest showed today when he didn't get frustrated.

"I've seen times where maybe he would have gotten frustrated. He just stayed doing what the coaches had told him to do. Even thought he didn't score like he wanted to or like what they wanted him to, he was a huge part of the other guys scoring."

Tracy Abrams had a good scoring game, adding 8 points in 34 minutes and playing tough defense. He had a chance for double figures but missed both free throws late. Weber explained how the Illini benefitted from Abrams's bulldog tenacity.

"Tracy, other than one little stretch in the first half, I thought he did some really good, sound things for us. It's a lot of pressure on a freshman. He played so hard, he had trouble keeping his cookies after the game. That's the effort you want. He had blood on his socks, and he didn't have his cookies left either."

Richardson must be commended for fighting through his wrist pain for 21 minutes of action. He didn't do much statistically, but his defense second half had a major impact on the game. Paul praised his buddy.

"D.J. took one for the team. He knew he wasn't gonna score."

Weber expanded on that assessment.

"I've got to give D.J. a lot of credit. He was moping around; he was afraid to catch the ball, so we didn't start him. The first half, he tried to catch it one-handed, and we took him out.

"At halftime he said, 'Coach, I can play and help us.' He got the layup down. He did a great job on defense and showed some leadership. He had a little moxey."

The Illini are 3-1, but their 13 game home winning streak is in major jeopardy Tuesday as mighty Ohio State visits. Maniscalco will probably be unable to play, and it remains to be seen how healthy Richardson will be. But anything is possible in the rugged Big 10, even a win over the Buckeyes.

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