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Illinois’ Tyler Griffey hits long three-pointer for 63-62 win over Gardner-Webb

Illinois guard Joseph Bertr(2) shoots over Gardner Webb guard Max Landis (10) first half their NCAA college basketball game Assembly

Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand (2) shoots over Gardner Webb guard Max Landis (10) in the first half of their NCAA college basketball game at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill., Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Robin Scholz)

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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:24AM



CHAMPAIGN — The Illini piled up the keepsakes during a wildly successful week.

The Maui Invitational title. A mention from ESPN.com on Sunday as one of college basketball’s teams to watch. The nation’s player-of-the-week award (guard Brandon Paul).

Then the Illini needed a three-pointer from senior forward Tyler Griffey with 4.4 seconds left to escape with a 63-62 victory over Gardner-Webb.

An exhale or a reality check? Griffey made the debate more enjoyable for Illini fans, who are desperate for a big winner.

“[Gardner-Webb] deserved it,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said, “but we’re not going to give it back.’’

It’s still November, when an unexpected loss can turn a promising start into a work in progress. But Illinois (7-0) could sneak into the Top 25 before hosting Georgia Tech on Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The Illini looked like they didn’t get the tanning oil off their slippery fingers in a sluggish start. They committed eight turnovers and scored only six points in the first eight minutes.

Illinois trailed by eight late in the first half.

“I’m confident we can learn from this one,’’ Groce said. “Everybody wants to win. I’m more concerned in, are we playing well?’’

They lacked toughness and togetherness, two main demands under Groce. Illinois was sleepwalking in the first half, and Groce admitted his Illini have to play better.

The teams traded three-pointers and the lead on the last two possessions by running similar plays. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann and Groce were small-college teammates at Taylor University in northern Indiana, and Holtmann spent time on Groce’s staff at Ohio.

After the Runnin’ Bulldogs (4-4) banked in a three for a 62-60 lead with 14 seconds left, Groce put the ball in Paul’s hands.

“I was going to let Brandon read it,’’ Groce said. “If they double [Paul], then you’ve got Griff. If they don’t, make a play. Brandon made a great read and got it back to him.’’

When Gardner-Webb didn’t switch on defense, it left two men on Paul, and Griffey was wide open.

“I knew it was good as soon as I let it go,’’ Griffey said.

The senior class came up big. Paul (13 points, six rebounds, four assists, two turnovers), guard D.J. Richardson (13 points) and Griffey (13 points) carried the Illini. Redshirt junior Joe Bertrand (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) came off the bench to provide a spark after a lifeless start.

“Our older guys stepped up,’’ Groce said. “Seniors die hard.’’

Sophomores Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams combined for nine of Illinois’ 18 turnovers. Nevertheless, the emergence of confidence is a key building block after the Illini lost 12 of their last 14 games in 2011-12.

Gardner-Webb already beat DePaul by 12 before losing by nine at Iowa and knew all about returning from the tropics after playing in Cancun, Mexico, last week.

Holtmann said Groce “felt he got one that could have gone either way.’’

“His kids play with great confidence,’’ Holtmann said. “They play really loose and aggressive. They’ll be in attack mode.

“It’s hard to have a bad day behind John. He’s a really, really positive guy. His team feeds off that.’’



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