Brandon Paul sparks Illinois rally for 9th straight win

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Illinois’ Brandon Paul (3) goes up between St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson (44) and Demitrius Conger (11) late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Paul had a game high 17 points in Illinois’ 48-43 victory. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette/Robert K. O’Daniell)

CHAMPAIGN – Coach Bruce Weber always is imploring Brandon Paul to be a vertical player.

The junior guard heeded that ­advice Wednesday night. 

Paul scored 11 of his game-high 17 points in the last 3:57 as the No. 24 Illini recovered from a late nine-point deficit to pull out a 48-43 victory over St. Bonaventure at Assembly Hall.

During a 1:19 stretch, he scored eight consecutive points. Paul, though, struggled with his shot, making only 4 of 11 from the field, including 1-for-6 on three-pointers.

He scored three baskets attacking the rim hard.

“I didn’t want us to lose,” the former Warren star said. “I think I was more focused, and I think their ball-screen defense was not as effective [late in the game].”

Illinois (9-0) outscored St. Bonaventure 13-2 in the final 3:33, part of a game-closing 18-4 run. The Bonnies (3-4) grabbed their largest lead, 39-30, with 5:22 left after 6-9 star Andrew Nicholson (17 points, eight rebounds) split two free throws.

Junior guard D.J. Richardson (11 points) broke a personal 29-minute scoring drought when he made a three-pointer from the left wing that narrowed the deficit to 39-33. 

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard awoke from a difficult first half to score seven of his nine points in the second half. Early in the second half, Leonard had twice as many turnovers (four) as points.

Leonard scored the go-ahead basket on a difficult jump hook that gave Illinois a 45-43 lead with 58 seconds left. After a Nicholson turnover, Paul made one of two free throws for a 46-43 advantage. Paul punctuated the victory with a monster defensive rebound off an errant three-pointer by Nicholson. 

Paul’s two free throws with 12 seconds left sealed the victory.

“I haven’t been finishing layups, and I wanted to make that a focus, getting to the basket and drawing contact,” Paul said. 

Illinois made four early three-pointers en route to a 17-9 lead in the first seven minutes. The Illini had only five baskets over the next 25 minutes. 

“Everybody kept trying to make plays instead of letting the game come to them,” Weber said. “We shot too many threes early, then we turned it over six out of seven possessions. We were trying to hit grand slams with nobody on base.”

The Illini have been displaying a knack for pulling out games, even under trying conditions. They offset a 34-24 rebounding differential by forcing 18 turnovers, including 11 in the second half. 

“We have a different team this year,” Richardson said. “We’re tougher, and we have better defenders and tougher players.”

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