No. 3 and the 3s were too much for Gonzaga to handle.
Senior guard Brandon Paul hit five of Illinois’ 11 3-pointers and scored 35 points to lead the 13th-ranked Illini past No. 10 Gonzaga 85-74 in front of a packed house of 6,000 Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Paul’s performance was reminiscent of another Big Ten basketball standout, Michigan State forward Draymond Green, who poured in 34 points in the Spartans’ win over Gonzaga last year. Paul, who wears No. 3, equaled Virginia’s Sean Singletary, who scored 35 points in a loss to Gonzaga in December, 2005, for the most points scored against Bulldogs at the MAC.
Gonzaga (9-1) was red-hot early, leading by as many as 11 in the first half before Paul and the Illini took over. Paul had 18 points by halftime as the Illini (10-0) rallied to tie it at 41.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve played against in my two years,” Bulldogs guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “He’s probably going to be a Leaguer (NBA player). We’d cut their lead down and they’d come back down and get a 3 or an and-one or we’d foul them. We just have to play better defense.”
Paul finished 10 of 16 from the field and 10 of 11 at the free-throw line. He added four rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks. The Bulldogs whittled an eight-point deficit to four with 7:20 left, but Paul ran Bell off two separate screens on the perimeter and buried a 3-pointer. He followed that by driving past Kelly Olynyk for a layup and Illinois led by nine.
“I didn’t want to rely too much on the 3, but they were giving me open shots so I’m not going to stop shooting,” said Paul, who scored 43 points against Ohio State last season.
Gonzaga made another run, pulling within 73-70 with 3:42 remaining. Tracy Abrams drove for a layup and Paul did the same, punctuated with an acrobatic finish over Olynyk while being fouled. Paul’s three-point play put Illinois in front 78-71.
Gonzaga played quite a bit of zone early before switching to man-to-man. The Bulldogs tried several different defenders and schemes on Paul but nothing slowed the smooth 6-foot-4, 200-pounder.
“He looked like a high-level NBA guy,” GU coach Mark Few said. “He can get his shot anytime he wants. We were doing a variety of things with him, trapping him, running different guys at him. We just didn’t have a guy that could guard him 1-on-1.”
Gonzaga scored the first eight points and led 31-20 after a Kevin Pangos’ 3 with 8:10 left in the first half. At one point, Gonzaga had made 14 of 19 field-goal attempts but led by just seven.
“We just said, ‘Keep our poise,’” Paul said. “A lot of people doubted us. We came into the game as underdogs. We love that stuff.”
The Bulldogs scored 33 points in the first 12:20, then just 39 points in the final 27:40. Gonzaga committed 12 of its 16 turnovers in the first half. After hitting 61 percent of its field goals in the first half, Gonzaga faded to 38.5 percent in the second half.
Meanwhile, Illinois made 50 percent of its field-goal attempts, 11 of 26 3s (42.3 percent) and 14 of 17 free throws (82.4 percent). In addition to Paul’s 35, Abrams had 14 points and D.J. Richardson 11, giving Illinois 60 points from its three starting guards.
Olynyk led Gonzaga with 16 points and eight rebounds, but he committed six turnovers. Elias Harris added 15 points and seven boards. Bell and Pangos combined for 22 points, but made just 6 of 20 field-goal attempts.
“They shot the ball really well, they made plays and they bothered us all night on the bounce,” Few said. “We just couldn’t keep them in front. For the most part, they did a decent enough job of slowing us down, but I thought we got a lot of good looks. We just didn’t shoot it quite as well as they did.”