Closer Look: Illinois Upsets Gonzaga, 85-74, in Spokane

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Final score: Illinois 84, Gonzaga 74

Twitter recap: Paul drops 35, keeps Illini afloat in 1st half, puts game away late in 2nd. Pangos struggles again, Gonzaga shies away from size advantage.

Dec. 8, 2012; Spokane, WA, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Brandon Paul (3) hits a three-pointer against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the first half at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The legend of Brandon Paul grows. The senior guard poured in a season-high 35—each bucket carrying weighty significance, so it seemed. When Gonzaga jumped out to an early 11-point lead, a pair of consecutive Paul treys pulled the Illini right back. Without his 18 first-half points, this game would have been over by halftime. Illinois may as well have taken its charter flight back to Champaign then. After keeping the game tied heading into break, Paul broke out late in the second half to put the game on ice. He scored 13 points in the final 6:55, as Gonzaga rallied from 9-down to within four. Paul put his name on the map with his virtuous, 43-point performance to down fifth-ranked Ohio State last season. On Saturday night, the map put its name on Brandon Paul.

D.J. Richardson renewed. He doesn’t just find a spot on the 3-point line, set up camp and fling long-range salvos anymore. Illinois’ No. 2 option is a transformed player—a more consciously active rebounder, a better overall defender and a more diverse scorer, now possessing the ability to beat his man off the dribble as well. Richardson sure makes a worthy wing man to Brandon Paul. At this rate, he may fetch his own sidekick soon too.

What the win means for Illinois. Maui was no fluke, for starters. This team has come a long way since its overtime win against Hawaii the school—never mind the fabled early-season tournament in Hawaii—that Richardson clinched on a buzzer-beating 3. This was a take notice win by first-year Illini head coach John Groce. Illinois hadn’t defeated a top-ten, non-conference opponent on the road since 1986. Groce scored one such win in his first opportunity at his new school. If this is what the former Ohio caretaker can do with top-notch backcourt talent, wait until he gets a reliable interior presence (Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert, perhaps?) to complete the puzzle.

B1G gets bigger. Whether Illinois’ one trick pony act—a backcourt-centric team without a representative interior presence—is sustainable remains unclear (John Groce certainly won with less frontcourt talent at Ohio). What is clear is that far and away the best conference in college basketball is even deeper than initially forecasted. Illinois, for now at least, merits mention with Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota on the league’s second tier.

(More about Gonzaga after the jump)

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