Bertrand Goes Big-Time

Joe Bertrand exercised his ability and potential during a lethal scoring frenzy Wednesday.

CHAMPAIGN – Joe Bertrand put everything together in an explosive stretch in the second half against Georgia Tech Wednesday.

For a brief run, the redshirt junior displayed a game with no weakness; an offensive skill-set that couldn't be stopped.

Bertrand scored 10 straight points, two 3s and two lay-ups, over the course of 1:40 late in the second half. The points came just in time, as the Illini trailed by four with less than seven minutes to play. But by the time Bertrand was done, there would be no recourse by the Yellow Jackets, replaced instead with the sting of collecting the pieces of a game that was once in their command.

First things first, somewhere along the way Bertrand received the honor, if you want to call it that, as an "athlete" on the basketball court. That means he can jump higher than most, dunk harder, create mismatches with his size and length and various other things that come with the tag.

All those certainly apply. But far too often that label comes with the perception that players like Bertrand can't shoot, or can't shoot very well. Hence, they try to finish around the rim and don't shoot much to begin with.

That's why the first basket in the Bertrand Bunch wasn't surprising and probably didn't alarm Tech's players. It was a layup on the fast break, assisted by Brandon Paul.

Tech leads 58-56.

He was just getting started. And he was about to shatter stereotypes, too. After a Yellow Jackets foul, Paul found Bertrand open for a 3. He didn't hesitate.

59-58, Illini now on top.

The Assembly Hall is rocking, as if Bertrand turned the noise up. It will get louder.

On the next Tech possession, Paul blocked a Robert Carter jumper. The break is on, with Bertrand at the head of the pack. He locked in for another 3. No doubt.

Illinois leads 62-58.

Now, the crowd is really jumping. Tech takes a timeout to swell the crowd and cool off a blazing Bertrand. It won't work.

Out of the break, Paul forces a turnover, saving the ball from going out of bounds. D.J. Richardson scoops it up and pushes it ahead to, guess who? Bertrand.

Now he's ready to show off that athleticism. Long strides and eyes locked completely on the rim, Joe takes off. He briefly shows the ball with his right hand and then clutches it back into his body, holding it with both hands as he takes contact from two defenders. Before he hits the ground he finds the time and strength to push the ball upwards to the rim. And it somehow goes in, with a foul called to give him extra time to bask in the glory.

He missed the free throw – but he gets a pass for that one.

Illinois 64-58.

The ballgame, still with 4:48 to play, is over. The fans have started a loud, the-neighbors-are-calling-the-cops party in the stands. And Bertrand's name is trending on twitter.

This is what happens when Bertrand's ability matches Bertrand's potential. To say the sky is the limit would be to sell it short. It's running the floor, exploding to the rim, spotting up for open 3s and that crossover – man, that crossover – to create a shot when a shot isn't there.

When everything is working, it's near impossible to stop.

"He's just streaky enough to be dangerous," Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. "He's playing with a lot of freedom and confidence right now."

Bertrand earned this. He worked for it. Coach John Groce made each Illini guard and wing shoot 11,000 3s this summer.

Correction – each player had to MAKE 11,000 3s. Extending the range on his shot was exactly what Bertrand needed to expand his offensive capabilities, to become more than an athlete pegged into an attacking mindset.

"It really helped a lot with my shooting and skill development," he said. "It helped with my 3s, step back 3s, really helped my confidence."

Said Gregory: "I think early in his career he was maybe just an athletic slasher, driver. Obviously he spent a lot of time working on his perimeter shooting and so forth."

While he's certainly not a finished product, still working to be more consistent, among other things, fans that tweeted they couldn't believe what they were seeing caught a glimpse of something special Wednesday.

For Bertrand, the sixth man on a team that is currently 8-0, the incendiary scoring run provided the proof of hard work and confidence and something to aspire to be on a more regular basis.

"He always competes," Groce said. "You know Joe, until you get to know him, he can sometimes come off like a quiet guy, but Joe has big-time energy. I never, ever, very rarely will ever watch practice film or game film and say Bertrand's not playing hard. He always competes. Joe loves to compete, and tonight he competed."

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