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Lethargic Illinois basketball tops Norfolk State to move to 11-0

Guard D.J. Richardsovercame bruised shoulder take charge game down stretch help Illinois remaunbeaten. | John Dixon~AP

Guard D.J. Richardson overcame a bruised shoulder to take charge of the game down the stretch and help Illinois remain unbeaten. | John Dixon~AP

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CHAMPAIGN — Even though No. 10 Illinois and All-America candidate Brandon Paul are the talk of the college basketball
nation, they still have issues with ups and downs.

‘‘Obviously, we feel fortunate to win the game,’’ coach John Groce said after the Illini slogged past Norfolk State 64-54 on Tuesday. ‘‘We didn’t play particularly well, but we did enough to win.’’

After an uplifting and impressive victory Saturday at Gonzaga, Illinois (11-0) showed its flip side at home against the Spartans (6-6).

‘‘We have to play better on Sunday [against unbeaten Eastern Kentucky] than we did tonight,’’ said Groce, who was ready to move on to the Illini’s next game. ‘‘When we’re tough and together, we can play with anybody. When we’re not, anything can happen. I’m confident we’ll have more bite on Sunday.’’

The good news for Illinois is that it’s off to its best start since it won its first 15 games in 2005-06, the season after it went to the Final Four. That team finished 26-7.

But these nail-biters are draining. The Illini were nursing a 49-47 lead with 61/2 minutes left when D.J. Richardson (11 points) took charge. Despite crumbling to the floor and bruising his shoulder in a first-half collision, he scored seven consecutive Illinois points down the stretch.

In the second half, Tracy Abrams hit the deck with a shin injury after another collision with the scrappy Spartans. Groce said both players will be fine.

Richardson gave Illinois a 52-47 lead with a three-pointer with 6:28 left, made it 54-49 with two free throws with 2:50 left, then added a runner that gave the Illini a 56-51 lead with 1:52 left.

Illinois survived despite shooting
a season-low 35 percent (21-for-60), including a season-worst 26 percent on three-pointers (6-for-23). The
Illini also were just 16-for-27 (59 percent) from the free-throw line.

‘‘We find ways to grind it out,’’ said Paul, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half. ‘‘We should have more energy at home than away, but it seems like it hasn’t been that way. Not taking anything away from Norfolk State, but we kind of played down to our competition today.’’

It’s only human nature to exhale after a high-profile victory such as the one at Gonzaga, but Illinois is starting to fall into a pattern. After winning the Maui Invitational, the Illini came home and barely survived Gardner-Webb. After handling Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, they slogged past Western Carolina.

Then there was Norfolk State.

‘‘At the end of the day, I didn’t think our effort level, our energy and our focus were where they’ve been,’’ Groce said. ‘‘That’s my
responsibility. I didn’t have them ready to play. We’ll figure it out.’’

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