CHAMPAIGN--After Illinois' narrow escape vs. Gardner-Webb on Sunday, John Groce wanted to see better toughness when the No. 22 Illini took on Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Illini showed toughness all right. Despite scuffling offensively for long stretches, they rallied for a 75-62 victory on Wednesday to improve to 8-0.
``If you had said, `Would you predict 8-0?' I probably wouldn't have been bold enough to do that,'' Groce said. ``But our guys have been resilient. We've been popped in the mouth two or three times and come back in games and made big plays down the stretch. Hopefully we continue to do that.''
The leader of this comeback was redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand, who put on an offensive show, including a Nightly Top 10 hang-time drive to the basket that helped Illinois stay unbeaten. The 6-6 sixth man scored 10 straight points, lifting Illinois from a 58-54 deficit with 7:15 left to a 64-58 lead with 5:25 left against the Yellow Jackets (4-2).
``[Bertrand] brings energy off the bench,'' Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. ``He's a great athlete--and he's just streaky enough to be dangerous.''
Bertrand and Brandon Paul finished with 15 points apiece, and Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson each had 14 points for Illinois.
Illinois' victory allowed the Big Ten to salvage a 6-6 tie in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Midwesterners were 4-2 on Tuesday, but surprising losses by No. 13 Michigan State in Miami and by Wisconsin at home to Virginia were costly in their bid for a fourth straight Challenge title.
The ACC now leads 10-3-1 in the series.
Leading 36-35 after a see-saw first half, Illinois seemed to take control at the start of the second half. It made its first three shots, including three-balls by Richardson and Griffey, to go ahead 44-37.
But Georgia Tech took charge and led 58-54 with 7:15 left. That's when Illinois, led by Bertrand, answered with a 21-4 barrage to end the game.
``Until you get to know him, Joe can come off like a quiet guy,'' Groce said. ``But Joe has big-time energy. Joe loves to compete. And tonight he competed. He really ignited the 21-4 run.''
--John Groce's 8-0 start is the second best by a first-year coach at Illinois. Fletcher Lane started 12-0 in 1907-08, his only season as Illini coach.
--Illinois is 7-1 vs. Georgia Tech, including a 103-92 double overtime victory on Jan. 22, 1989. That was the only other time Tech has come to Champaign. With that victory, Illinois improved to 17-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation the next day.