Groce: 'Seniors Die Hard'

Illinois' elder statesmen wouldn't let the team falter against Gardner Webb.

CHAMPAIGN –John Groce had a blank stare on his face during his approach to shake hands with Gardner Webb coach Chris Holtmann in the aftermath of Sunday's game.

Groce let out a sigh of relief, his demeanor and body language the direct result of Illinois' hard fought 63-62 victory, capped by a 3-pointer by Tyler Griffey with 4.4 seconds left to go.

The look on Groce's face, echoed by his message to Holtmann, a close friend and former college teammate, said it all – the Illini could have lost this game.

Groce and Holtmann hugged for an extended period of time, with Groce doing most of the talking. "He felt like he got one that was in the balance and maybe, certainly could have gone either way," Holtmann said of the conversation.

Illinois started slow, had trouble scoring, turned the ball over too much and trailed on two different occasions with less than a minute to go.

The built in excuses were there for the taking. This was Illinois' sixth game in nine days, a Sunday afternoon drive against a less than marquee opponent on Thanksgiving weekend and less than 72 hours removed from a flight back from Hawaii.

Never mind all that, Illinois seniors said. Guys like Griffey, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Jospeh Bertrand weren't trying to hear that news.

"Seniors die hard," Groce said. "I thought that our seniors made plays. They made big plays."

The Illini trailed by five with less than 10 minutes to play. The game was beginning to have a bad feel to it. The Bulldogs were playing over their heads, but with plenty of momentum and confidence. That's when the seniors (plus redshirt junior Bertrand) took over.

"We went with our older guys late in the game," Groce said. "They were playing well together. I liked their disposition. It was kind of a feel and instinct thing on our staff's part and that's what we went with."

Paul made two free throws, Griffey poured in a jumper, and Bertrand added two more singles, giving the Illini it's first lead, 48-47, in nearly 10 minutes of play.

Then Paul hit a layup, Bertrand got a steal and kicked it to Paul for a 3 – a shot that left those watching with the sure-fire feeling that it was going to go in before it left the senior guard's right hand.

The crowd erupted in response. Now with a six-point lead and in full command, the game should have been over.

Credit Gardner Webb for hanging in there. Following a full timeout to regroup, the Bulldogs responded with a 3 by Kevin Hartley on the very next possession. After a turnover by Paul (in which Groce responded by telling his leading scorer to, "Relax. Relax.") Gardner Webb cut the lead to one with two free throws. The crowd, which moments prior had been at it's loudest decibel level of the season, was now quiet.

But Griffey, Bertrand and Paul wouldn't let them down. Bertrand first hit Griffey for a dunk. On the next possession, after Gardner Webb answered with two free throws, Bertrand skied to secure a miss by Paul and put the ball in to maintain a three-point lead. Griffey hit one of two free throws to give Illinois a 58-54 lead with 2:33 remaining. But the Bulldogs would not go away. Two more free throws and a 3 by Hartley gave Gardner Webb the lead with just under a minute to play.

Groce took a timeout and drew up a play to put the ball in Paul's hands. He drove to the basket, drawing contact. "CHARGE" the Gardner Webb coaches screamed in unison. Nope, said the ref. Instead it was a tough make by Paul, a basket that gave Illinois the lead once again.

Holtmann called a timeout of his own, calling a play that led to Tashon Newsome lining up a 3 from the top of the key with 16 seconds left. Griffey stretched out his long, 6-9 frame in an attempt to block the shot. His outstretched hand pushed the shot long, but it banked in.

Maybe Illinois wasn't supposed to win this game – not if shots were going in like that.

But Groce calmly called time, once again put the ball in Paul's hands and provided a more-than-solid Plan B in having Griffey set the screen on the play.

Gardner Webb had trouble defending the play from the beginning.

"Our call was Black, which is a switch of the on-ball screen late," Holtmann said. "Our senior didn't hear it. We had two guys on Paul."

A heads-up player, Griffey realized where the open spot would be, slipped the screen and set up beyond the 3-point line. Paul hit him with a crisp pass and Griffey never hesitated. Ball game.

"Brandon made a great read and a great pass," Griffey said. "I knew it was good as soon as I let it go."

On the opposite end of that great feeling was Holtmann. An assistant under Groce for two seasons at Ohio, Illinois likely won't face another opponent as prepared as his Bulldogs were. In fact, the two teams ran the same plays down the stretch, some with the same names.

"I learned a ton from John. Coach Groce is a terrific teacher," Holtmann said. "I learned so much from him and have a great deal of respect. It is odd though when you're calling out the same calls offensively and defensively."

Sure, it wasn't pretty. Illinois finished with 18 turnovers, shot less than 44 percent from the field and didn't get much help from any player not named Griffey, Paul, Bertrand or Richardson.

Following the game, Groce said Gardner Webb deserved the win. "Having said that," Groce said, "as I told the guys in the locker room, we're not going to give it back. We're not going to do that."

These Illini, once again, showed resolve. In winning time, the guys got it done. A game that could have been lost wasn't. A resume that could have been scarred remained unblemished.

"I love coaching these guys," Groce said. "I enjoy coming to work everyday. We didn't play particularly well (Sunday), but that doesn't change how I feel being around them. I love coaching them. I've said all along they're teachable. They want to be good."

It may be Year One at Illinois under Groce, but Holtmann isn't surprised at the fast start and early run of wins.

"I think Illini Nation has seen what those of us that are close to John and his staff know, and that's his kids are going to play with great confidence, they're going to play really loose and aggressive, they're going to be in attack mode. I think everyone has seen that in this early part of this season, and they will get better. I really believe that.

"It's hard to have a bad day being around John. He's a really, really positive guy. His team, I think, feeds off that."

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