Sharing the ball when it had it and playing lockdown defense when it didn't, Illinois opened a 57-26 halftime lead and wheeled past USC 94-64 in its Maui Invitational opener on Monday.
``The first half was about as good as we defended this season,'' coach John Groce said. ``We were really unselfish in the first half, really shared the ball. We've got a lot of guys that can score and shoot the ball, so it's hard to key on one guy. [But] I thought the whole deal was key by our defense.''
Brandon Paul (26 points) led the way as Illinios (4-0) shot nearly 69 percent in the first half against the Trojans (2-1). D.J. Richardson (13), Tracy Abrams (11) and Tyler Griffey (10) also were in double figures
Next up for Illinois is Chaminade (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN2). The Division II tournament host upset Texas 86-73 in its opener. The Silverswords are 7-76 since the tournament begain in 1984.
A win in that game would put the Illini in the Maui championship game against Butler or No. 9 North Carolina, the tourney favorite.
Illinois lost the Maui championship game to Arizona in 2000, its highest finish in the prestigious early-season tournament. The Illini finished third in 1987 and 2007, their other Maui appearances.
The USC start was very different from Illinois' first island game. It trailed Hawaii 44-28 early in the second half on Friday before surviving 78-77 in overtime on D.J. Richardson's three-pointer at the buzzer.
``We were disappointed we didn't get off to a better start Friday,'' Groce said. ``I thought the start to the [USC] game was critical. I thought we came out and got off to a great start, had a lot of energy, and really moved the ball. It was a free‑flowing first half. I thought the tempo was to our liking. We got the ball up and down the floor, and guys made plays.''