But man, what a game! At two points I just knew Illinois was going to lose – trailing by five with less than 10 minutes to play and then again when trailing with less than a minute again. Both times. So that makes three times, actually.
Here's five things that caught my eye…
1. Resolve from the top. Like I said, I thought Illinois was slipping into a bad place with just 10 minutes left to go. Down by five, the team wasn't scoring and looked flat – just flat. Nobody was particularly playing well, shooting well, taking care of the ball. The defense was OK, but that seemed to be about it.
With Tracy Abrams especially struggling, Groce rolled with a lineup consisting of his oldest guys. And guess what happened – the foursome of D.J. Richardson, Griffey, Paul and Joseph Bertrand combined to score the final 26 Illini points.
Griffey was especially assertive. He scored in a variety of ways during the course of the game, hitting 3s, jumpers, converting drives to the basket.
"I think I even hit a floater," he said.
Paul, on the other hand, didn't play very well in the first half. He was 0-4 from the floor, missing two wide open 3s. He split a pair of free throws near the end of the period to get on the scoreboard.
If his play bothered him, he didn't show any signs of it. He came out in the second half and went 4-for-6. He was clearly the go-to guy down the stretch, hitting two free throws, a 3 and a layup to keep Illinois in it.
When the game was on the line, Coach John Groce put the ball in Paul's hands. Twice. The first time Paul converted a tough take to the basket. The second time, he passed to Griffey when he felt the double team.
The stretch of about four minutes to end the game would make anyone fall in love with Brandon's game. He did have a bad turnover during that run, but the rest was flawless. That 3 he hit – I could feel it was going in before he released it. And when he had the ball in his hands at the end, I felt like all was right.
It makes you wonder – what is going on during the rest of the game? I know you can't play perfect, you can't be THAT guy all the time. But the inconsistent play sorta holds me back. It's like meeting a girl and liking 90 percent of her, but having that 10 percent that you don't like drive you mad.
Regardless, Paul and Griffey led down the stretch. That has to continue. This team is old by college basketball standards. It's not everyday you have four seniors, four GOOD seniors. I count that as five with Bertrand included.
Speaking of which…
2. I have a crush on Joe's role/style of play. I don't know if Bertrand (can I call him Joe? Let's) wants to start. Most kids do. I think he's plenty good enough to be in the first five, and regardless he's going to get starter's minutes.
But I don't want Joe to start. I think he's perfect in that sixth man role. He can create, his shooting is getting better, he's athletic as all get out and he plays damn hard.
The way the lineups shake out, I love having Bertrand come off the bench early in the game, allowing Groce to mix and match as he sees fit. Joe's length and rebounding ability allows for options. His jumping ability lends itself to highlights. The little things he does (scoring seven points early when the team was struggling, three offensive boards and three assists) lead to staying in close games.
Good player. Fun to watch. In a great role. With tremendous style.
3. Tyler Griffey took that shot. And he knew it was going in. Would Griffey have slipped that screen and been ready to kill a team's hopes like that last season? I say no. He says no.
But dude is playing with confidence. He led the team in shots with 13. There was one score in particular that stood out to me – a drive to the basket. He caught the ball at the top of the lane and put the ball on the floor and rose to the rim and put it in. He made it look easy, but it's clear he's thinking of ways to score before he catches the ball.
He can bust a shot. That's easy. He could settle for that all day. But he's attacking and seeking and driving.
And draining game winners. Good for him. What's good for him is good for Illinois.
4. Bounce back Tracy. Hey, we've all been there – bad day at work, speeding ticket, speeding ticket after a bad day at work. It happens.
When a day goes south, you've got to bounce back. You can't have two bad days at work in a row. Abrams, to put it nicely, did not play well Sunday. He didn't score, had four turnovers and played a season low 18 minutes.
I thought the press rattled him early. He had a few early turnovers and then looked tentative, which as it customarily happens, led to more turnovers.
GW's bench could feel it, too. "Eat him up," one assistant yelled to the defender on Abrams on one occasion.
It was just a tough game for Abrams. He got off to a bad start and never regained his footing mentally.
OK – so what? The team won. His older boys bailed him out. I still say Abrams is the most important player on the team. It's no coincidence to me that the offense looked really, really lame while Abrams had his worst game of the year.
Abrams needs to have two good practices leading into Wednesday's game against Georgia Tech. Just flush that game from his mind and get back on track.
I hope he comes out shooting and doesn't hesitate to take a few risks and dribbles with conviction against the Yellow Jackets.
5. Friends in low places. As in, you need friends in low places. Or in the paint. OK, so I wanted to throw a Garth Brooks reference in today for some reason. Maybe I forced it.
In any case, Illinois needs more production from Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin. I get it – you can't look at the box score and say a player didn't play well just by reading the stats.
But let's just say you could. Let's take a peak:
Egwu: three shots, four points, two boards, two turnovers, three fouls.
McLaurin: no shots, three points, two boards, three turnovers, two fouls.
Looking at that, you would have to say the duo didn't impact the game much.
Wait, let's avoid the mistake of saying a player or two didn't impact the game. Egwu played 23 minutes, so he had to impact the game one way or another (if only while defending inbounds passes while he's bouncing up and down like a four-year old on a trampoline fueled by Mountain Dew).
Gardner Webb played a lot of zone, so there you go – that's probably what limited the bigs on offense. But I don't see Illinois getting by too often with that little of help from down low, at least on the boards.
Throw in Myke Henry, too. He had four points and only one rebound. That threesome is averaging 13 rebounds a game – and Sunday only had five.