No. 24 Illini win need late run to stay undefeated.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber tried to warn the Illini. He talked about St. Bonaventure like it still had Bob Lanier, the first-round NBA draft pick who led the Bonnies to the Final Four in 1970. OK, St. Bonaventure had Andrew Nicholson, a mobile big man who has the attention of NBA scouts. Nevertheless, No. 24 Illinois was a 10 1/2-point favorite, but this was nothing like the Illini expected. After looking sharp in the win against Gonzaga last weekend, the Illini were ragged before rallying from nine down in the second half behind a strong surge from junior guard Brandon Paul in a 48-43 victory over the Bonnies at Assembly Hall Wednesday. Paul scored eight consecutive points for Illinois to tie the game at 41-41 and allowed the Illini to avoid the upset. Meanwhile, Illinois gave up only four points over the final 5 minutes 22 seconds in its first game since returning to the top 25 for the first time since January. "You win games pretty and skillfully like Saturday,'' Weber said. "If you're going to be a good team, when the ball isn't going in the hoop, you still have to guard, have energy and play your butts off. We did down the stretch and found ways to win ugly. "This was an ugly game, but we found a way to win.'' While the big question of the day was who would be hired as football coach, a game against the team picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 Conference didn't get as much attention. Illinois improved to 9-0. The Illini host Coppin State Sunday (7 p.m., EPSNU). Paul scored 17 points lead the Illini, including 11 of Illinois' last 15 points, and guard D.J. Richardson had 11 as Illinois overcame a letdown and perhaps learned something in the process. "I don't think it's all about that,'' Paul said. "Obviously, we have to stay more focused. Coach said this was the biggest game of the season. It showed. We got the W. I'm happy about that.'' Thankfully for the Illini, Paul came alive during a 90-second span, rallying the Illini to a tie with 2:39 left. Paul drove for a dunk, made a free throw on the following possession and went to the basket again on the ensuing possession for another basket. When he failed to convert the three-point play, center Meyers Leonard tipped the rebound to the perimeter. The ball eventually found its way to Paul, who drove to the basket again and converted a three-point play to tie the game. Illinois took the lead on two free throws by Leonard for a 43-41 lead. After Paul made another free throw to push the lead to 46-43, Paul rebounded a St. Bonaventure miss and sank two free throws with 12.8 seconds left to seal the victory. When asked if this was a game the Illini would have won last year, Paul shook his head to answer no while Richardson filled in the blanks. "We've got better defenders and tougher players,'' Richardson said. Illinois turned back the clock -- to three years ago when the Illini lost 38-33 to Penn State. Illinois scored five points in the first 13 minutes of the second half and trailed 36-29. St. Bonaventure pushed the lead to 39-30 moments later. Nicholson led St. Bonaventure (3-4) with 17 points. "A great college game,'' said St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt. "If you were looking for an offensive game, it wasn't that. It was two teams playing great defense. It was hard to score. "Up 39-30 with five minutes left, we couldn't get the stop we needed. Paul took over the game. We couldn't keep him in front of us. We didn't finish it.'' Leading 17-12, Illinois turned it over on five straight possessions, and St. Bonaventure eventually grabbed a 26-24 lead at halftime. In the first 20 minutes, the Illini had eight field goals and nine turnovers. Five of the Illini's field goals in the first half came from the 3-point line. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Front court -- C Meyers Leonard struggled with the Bonnies' trapping defense before his tip rebounds helped key the late run. Back court -- B The Illini took too many 3-pointers. The starting guards were 5-for-21 from the arc. With the game on the line, Brandon Paul took the ball to the basket and won the game. Bench -- D- While the bench might have brought some energy, it didn't score a point and had just five rebounds. Overall -- C- Not a pretty game, but the Illini survived. December wins count in March on Selection Sunday. Win the game. Learn a lesson. Move forward.