(MCT) — SPOKANE, Wash. — Illinois made a first impression in Hawaii. The Illini traveled west again, this time to Washington, in hopes of making a lasting impression.
With an 85-74 victory against previously unbeaten No. 10 Gonzaga in the first true road test of the season, the No. 13 Illini legitimized themselves in the eyes of critics and to themselves.
“I’m obviously ecstatic we won,” guard Brandon Paul said. “A lot of people doubted us.”
But they didn’t doubt themselves, delivering a rare loss at McCarthey Athletic Center where the Bulldogs (9-1) are now 110-8.
The best word to describe Gonzaga, Groce had said earlier in the week, was “well-rounded.”
That was an apt description of Paul as well.
The senior guard kept the Illini (10-0) alive with 35 points, three steals, three assists, four rebounds and two blocks and an attacking mentality on defense that helped produce 16 turnovers from Gonzaga.
“I think he’s one of the best guards in the country,” Groce said.
Paul scored a career-high 43 points against Ohio State last season but this game ranked among his best games as he shot 10 of 16 from the field.
Illinois survived down the stretch with some daggers by Paul despite seeing big men Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey foul out and Sam McLaurin pick up four fouls.
Gonzaga shot 61 percent in the first half and started the game with an 8-0 lead. But the Illini remained steady and tied the game 41-41 at halftime.
“We just said, ‘Keep our poise,’ “ Paul said. “We had (missed) plenty of open shots. Coach kept telling us we were great shooters.”
The Illini shot 60 percent in the second half, and held the nation’s best shooting team (53.1 percent entering the game) to just 38.5 percent shooting after halftime.
Illinois offset the Bulldogs intimidating frontcourt and spot-on shooting by forcing 12 turnovers by halftime and kept them from making a field goal in the final 7:40 before halftime.
The Illini had disposed of lesser teams in the non-conference schedule. Sometimes by the narrowest — and scariest, for Illini fans — margins with some last-second shots and comebacks needed against lesser opponents.
They hoped to discover a clearer image of their identity on Saturday night at “The Kennel.”
Groce had warned that the Illini were not interested in placing too much weight on one game alone.
“Our season is never defined by just one game,” he said earlier in the week. “It’s a much bigger picture than that.”
The largest image looming in front of the Illini Saturday night was the Bulldogs’ frontcourt, which included two 7-footers and leading scorer 6-8 forward Elias Harris.
Kelly Olynyk, a 7-foot Canadian, started in place of 6-9 Sam Dower at center, making the Bulldogs intimidating from the jump along with 7-1 freshman Prezmek Karnowski off the bench. Olynyk led the Bulldogs with 16 points.
But the night belonged to Paul and the Illini.