CHAMPAIGN—Just when it appeared No. 22 Illinois had gone quiet, reserve guard Joseph Bertrand made some noise. The redshirt junior hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and scored every point in a 10-0 run to ignite the Illini to a 75-62 victory over Georgia Tech on Wednesday night in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game. Illinois (8-0) rallied late behind Bertrand, whose one-man show lifted the Illini from a 58-54 deficit late in the second half. They finished the game on a 21-4 run over the final 7:15.
“Until you get to know him, Joe sometimes comes off like a quiet guy, but he’s got some big-time energy,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I very rarely will watch practice film or game film and say, `Bertrand isn’t playing hard.”‘
Bertrand scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half as the surprising Illini kept up their early-season run. After missing his first season with a knee injury, Bertrand relied upon his athleticism to get to the basket and create scoring opportunities for himself during the last two years. By concentrating on his perimeter game during individual practice sessions over the summer, he’s become tougher to guard.
“It’s really helped my confidence,” Bertrand said. “I’m looking to shoot them more this year. I was driving more last year. I’m looking to do both.”
Bertrand was 6 for 8 from the floor while going 3 of 4 behind the 3-point line.
“He brings a lot of energy off the bench,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “He’s a great athlete. He’s just streaky enough to be dangerous.”
Illinois guard Brandon Paul also scored 15 points to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson had 14 points apiece. After losing 12 of its last 14 games last season, Illinois is off to a strong start under Groce, who became the only coach since World War II to start his Illini career with eight straight wins.
“If you’d have said, `Hey, would you predict 8-0?’ I wouldn’t have been bold enough to do that,” Groce said.
Kammeon Holsey led Georgia Tech (4-2) with 14 points while Jason Morris and Mfon Udofia scored 10 apiece. The Yellow Jackets appeared to grab control with a 12-3 run midway through the second half for a 54-50 lead before wilting down the stretch.
“Unfortunately for 33 minutes, that was a heck of a game,” Gregory said. “We didn’t play very well at the end. Very similar to our other loss against Cal. We’re just not quite tough enough at the end.”
Illinois entered the week as the nation’s leading 3-point shooting team, making an average of 10.9 per game. The Illini quickly found themselves in a long-distance shooting contest with Georgia Tech.The teams combined to make 6 of 10 from the 3-point line to start the game. But the Illini kept it up, finishing with a season-high 14 3-pointers, one short of the Assembly Hall single-game record. Meanwhile, the Illini also used a 2-3 zone defense for long stretches, something not seen from Illinois in years, but relied on man-to-man defense most of the game.
“Our defense ignited our offense during that 21-4 run,” Groce said. “When we defend like that and get some stops, we can put points on the board in a hurry. That’s what happened to end the game.”
Illinois has a 31-game nonconference winning streak in regular-season games at Assembly Hall. A loss to Dayton in 2011, when Gregory was coaching the Flyers, came in the NIT. Illinois, which relied upon 3-point shooting in its biggest wins this season, used 3-pointers from Richardson and Griffey during an 8-2 run to start the second half for a 44-37 lead. Georgia Tech rallied with two 3-pointers from guard Chris Bolden and a breakaway dunk by Morris for a 54-50 lead with 10:16 left.Georgia Tech was finishing an eight-day trip that took the team to California. After placing third in the DirecTV Classic in Anaheim, the Yellow Jackets were 7 of 10 from the field to grab a 21-15 lead. The lead changed hands six times in a back-and-forth first half, when Illinois shot 46.7 percent from the 3-point line while the Yellow Jackets hit 45.5 from behind the arc.