Illini get their fight back, beat Coppin State by 58

SHARE Illini get their fight back, beat Coppin State by 58

CHAMPAIGN — The score was 71-26, with the lion’s share of the second half left to play in the sort of game that makes one wonder if perhaps college basketball’s Division I ranks are a bit too expansive.

Yet there John Groce stood, glaring at his Illinois players. Their epic beatdown of Coppin State, an expected middle-of-the-pack team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, was only beginning.

“Compete!” he shouted, clapping his hands before turning them into shaking fists for emphasis.

It ended at 114-56. Groce had to be happy with that, right? Then again, this is a guy who wants — aches for — maximum effort from his players at all times. For him, it often isn’t about the final score.

He didn’t get nearly that maximum effort in the team’s opener Friday, an 80-71 victory over Georgia Southern. The Illini came mighty close to giving it to him in Game 2, putting together first-half runs of 16-0, 14-0 and 15-0 followed by a pair of late 12-0 spurts.

In all, that’s 69 unanswered points of pedal-to-the-metal.

“Tonight we had the right mindset,” Groce said. “It really starts with the right mindset and the right heart.”

The Illini will need a lot of “right” nights to get where they intend to go, which is the NCAA tournament after an understandable absence a season ago. Groce’s second Illini team didn’t have the firepower or the depth this one does, but you know what it did have? That mindset and heart to which Groce refers.

Groce doesn’t want his players thinking offense, not even after six of them scored in double figures, the team drilled 15 three-pointers and there were assists on 24 of the 41 field goals.

“Don’t ever fall for that,” he told them after the game. “It starts with our defense and our rebounding.”

In other words, it’s all about that effort. Groce got it from Malcolm Hill, who scored 13 points, grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and admitted that he played “really soft” in the opener. Groce got it from freshman Leron Black, who corralled eight boards to go with his 18 points. Guard Ahmad Starks also had 18, including four three-pointers.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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