Illini rebound with OSU upset, now ready for break
On New Year's Eve, the sky was falling for Illinois basketball.
A blowout loss at Purdue seemed to confirm what skeptical fans feared about their team - that an impressive early record might have been built mostly on close wins over inferior competition.
Funny how a big win can fix what ails a dragging team, and Tuesday's upset of No. 5 Ohio State has the Illini bouncing back.
The 43 points from Brandon Paul - the third-best game in Illini history from a player who had annoyed some fans with his scoring struggles - was just icing on the cake.
''We slipped up at Purdue, and we had some couple rough games, with the crowd booing us and whatever,'' sophomore center Meyers Leonard said. ''We fight for each other, and it's a big confidence booster.''
Now Illinois (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) gets a break. The Illini don't play again until a Jan. 19 date at Penn State.
And that could give a team that's won three straight since the 75-60 Boilermaker loss in spite of injuries a chance to get healthy.
Starting point guard Sam Maniscalco has been out most of January with an ankle injury, the same one that sidelined him almost all of last season at Bradley before he transferred to Illinois. And another starter, D.J. Richardson, has played through a wrist injury that limited him in one game to an almost entirely defensive role.
''It's so good,'' Weber said of the time off. ''We need practice, we need Sam back and we need a break.''
But the 79-74 win over the Buckeyes and Paul's big game sent Illinois into that break in a better mood than they might have expected.
Unhappy fans have been a headache for Weber since last season, when many called for the coach to be fired after the team's up-and-down Big Ten season and second-round NCAA tournament exit.
Early wins this season were too close for many fans' comfort - 48-43 over St. Bonaventure and 64-60 against Cornell - and a 16-point loss to UNLV really set them off.
But in their close wins - even against teams the fans want to see blown out - Weber has said he's seen something in his young team he likes, something he can build on.
Up and down the roster, which includes six freshmen, they play defense and fight for loose balls. And they never seem to give up.
The Ohio State win, Weber pointed out, was a perfect example.
Illinois went down by 11 early in the second half, with the Buckeyes scoring quickly on four straight possessions. Without a senior on the floor and with their offense running through one of those freshmen, point guard Tracy Abrams, the Illini scrapped back.
''We've got something going for us,'' Weber said. ''I'd like to win by 30, but I don't think that's in us just yet.''
Starting with that Missouri game, the Illini have found a scorer that they lacked in redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand.
Bertrand put up 19 points in the Missouri game, then a career high for a player who as often as not sat near the end of the bench.
Including that game he's averaged 14 points over a six-game stretch - including 25 in a win over Nebraska - on 72 percent shooting.
Illinois' search for a scorer was to great degree a search for someone to produce what a struggling Paul wasn't providing.
The junior was averaging 12 points a game for Illinois, but frustrated with his tendency to shoot and miss on long 3-pointers when the Illini needed points.
Then came Tuesday.
Paul started slow but finished 11-15 on field goals - including 8-10 on 3-pointers - and an unreal 13-15 form the free throw line. He tossed up sky-high shots that fell straight down and found nothing but net. And the 6-4 Paul had four blocks, one of them a late rejection that frustrated and stunned the 6-9 Jared Sullinger as Illinois locked the game away.
Buckeye coach Thad Matta said afterward that he'd only seen a couple of other performances quite like it, when the ball found the bottom of the basket
''That thing was as big as the ocean to him tonight,'' Matt said.
Weber said the game, he hopes, helps turn Paul's offensive game around.
''He's struggled. He's done a lot of great things for us, but he's really struggled offensively,'' Weber said.
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