CHAMPAIGN – Joseph Bertrand dealt surprisingly well with being largely invisible during his first two years in the Illinois basketball program.
“I like to be the one who comes out of nowhere,” the 6-6 sophomore swingman from Sterling said.
His anonymity is about to end.Â
Continuing his recent offensive surge, Bertrand was nearly flawless. He scored a career-best 25 points on 11-for-12 shooting that helped the Illini overcome a five-point second-half deficit Saturday in beating Nebraska 59-54 at ÂAssembly Hall.
Taking advantage of Nebraska’s defensive strategy to constantly double-team 7-1 center Meyers Leonard, Bertrand made seven of his eight attempts in the second half.Â
Guard Brandon Paul supported Bertrand with 11 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Illinois (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten) needed every one of Bertrand‘s baskets to overcome injuries and indifferent first-half play. Guard Sam Maniscalco missed his second consecutive game because of a leg injury. Guard D.J. Richardson didn’t start for the first time this season. Playing with his right wrist heavily bandaged, he played 21 minutes and was limited to two points on 1-for-4 shooting.
Guard Tracy Abrams showed some punch with eight points on 3-for-4 shooting. Myke Henry (five points) made a key three-pointer.
Bertrand scored on an array of mid-range jumpers, floaters and runners in the lane. The most important was a floater that broke a 54-54 tie with 54 seconds left.
“I’ve been working on my pull- up game, and everything else [offensively] has been coming,” Bertrand said.Â
Illinois avoided being a footnote as Nebraska (8-7, 0-4) remains in search of its first league victory. Nebraska star guard Bo Spencer (13 points) made a three-pointer from the left wing that capped an 11-2 run for the Cornhuskers’ largest second-half lead at 45-40.
Illinois also benefitted from a questionable intentional foul call on Nebraska guard Brandon Richardson with 20 seconds left. With his team trailing 56-54 with less than 30 seconds to play, Spencer shot a deep three-pointer from the right wing that caromed off his teammate Jorge Brian Diaz.Â
Paul alertly tipped the ball to himself in the open court and streaked toward the basket. He made both free throws for the 58-54 lead after Richardson’s intentional foul. With Illinois maintaining possession, Leonard was fouled on the inbounds play. ÂHe split the free throws for the final margin.
“Coaches don’t get subjective opinions,” Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. “It’s a 50-50 call.”
The teams committed 12 turnovers apiece in the first half, which ended with Nebraska up 25-22.
“In the second half, we had two [turnovers], and they had eight, and that was probably the game right there,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
Leonard scored all seven of his points in the second half.
“I couldn’t be more happy for our guys,” Weber said. “We had a great defensive effort down the stretch and found a way to win.”