SPOKANE – It came as no surprise when the Illinois Fighting Illini stayed cool, calm and collected in the face of a torrid start by Gonzaga on Saturday night.
After all, the Illini are coached by a man who worked most of the previous game with fans staring at a rip in the seat of his pants.
“I should probably start wearing dark underwear,” Illinois coach John Groce mused.
Chances are the first-year coach of the Illini can get a free suit anywhere in Illinois these days. Groce’s 13th-ranked Illini knocked off No. 10 Gonzaga, 85-74, in a non-conference thriller at the jam-packed McCarthey Athletic Center.
Both teams came into the game with 9-0 records. A sellout crowd of 6,000 fans roared their approval as the Bulldogs bolted to 8-0 and 12-3 leads.
The Illini, who start four seniors, did not blink. Guard Brandon Paul scored 18 of his 35 points in the first half, and after Illinois forged a 41-41 tie at intermission, his timely baskets helped Illinois take the lead for good early in the second half.
“He was exceptional,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He looks like a high-level NBA guy. That’s what an NBA guy looks like live.”
“We came into the game as underdogs,” Paul said. “We love that stuff.”
Paul sank 10 of 16 shots, including 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range, and sank 10 of 11 free throws. The 35 points rank second in Paul’s career behind the 43-point performance he had against Ohio State last season.
“We tried to throw some different looks at him, and he tore them all apart,” Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk said. “You have to give him credit.”
Olynyk, making his second start of the season, led Gonzaga with 16 points. Elias Harris added 15, and former Kentridge High star Gary Bell Jr. added 12. Kevin Pangos scored 10 on 3-of-11 shooting.
The game was a study in contrasts. For example: Four Illini starters hail from Illinois. Four of Gonzaga’s starters are from outside the United States.
The Illini, who started the day ranked first in the nation with 10.8 3-pointers made per game, drained 11 of 25 from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs, who started the day ranked first in the nation in field-goal shooting percentage at 53.1, constantly pounded the ball inside.
Gonzaga shot 49 percent from the field, but just 27.8 percent on 3-pointers. The Bulldogs tied a season high with 16 turnovers – Olynyk had six – and the smaller Illini were outrebounded only 32-30.
Two of Paul’s backcourt partners, Tracy Abrams (14 points) and D.J. Richardson (11 points), helped Illinois stave off Gonzaga’s rallies in the second half. Bell hit a 3-pointer to pull GU within four with 7:23 to go, but Paul quickly answered with a 3 at the other end.
“We had some opportunities,” Olynyk said. “We just didn’t seize them at the right moments.”
Gonzaga returns to action in its annual “home” game at Seattle’s KeyArena next Saturday against Kansas State (6 p.m., ESPN2).