Both No. 13 Illinois and No. 10 Gonzaga were undefeated when they met Saturday night in Spokane, Washington, but there was no doubt as to which team was considered better. And it wasn't close.
The critics were clear in their judgments. Gonzaga has a strong inside presence. Illinois does not. Gonzaga has had little trouble putting away lesser opponents. Illinois cannot say the same. On paper, the disparity between the two teams was far bigger than three spots in the Top 25 poll, and nobody recognized it more than Illini fans.
Tom Fornelli of SB Nation's Fighting Illini blog, The Champaign Room, wrote prior to the game that not only did he not expect a win, but that he would be satisfied with a moral victory. Following the game, Fornelli was singing a different note, a note of triumph.
Gonzaga jumped out to a big lead early, were too damn much for the Illini to handle inside, and hit every single shot they put up. But then this Illini team did what I feared it wouldn't be ready to do in this kind of situation.
They fought back. They did not succumb to their environment. They kept doing what they were capable of doing and worked their way back into the game.
Fornelli goes on the praise the Illini for their toughness, especially guard Brandon Paul for his 35-point performance.
Brandon Paul was the hero, obviously. He had a Brandon Paul game, finishing with 35 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. And it was an efficient 35 points as he shot 10-for-16 from the floor, including 5-for-9 from deep. He also made 10 of his 11 free throw attempts.
This was the kind of game that the Illini needed Brandon to have...There's still some room on the bandwagon, but get on fast. It's filling up quick.
Paul and the Fighting Illini, at 10-0, are certain to rise even further in the rankings, perhaps into the top ten. They return home for their next contest on Tuesday night against Norfolk State.