When Gardner-Webb's Tashan Newsome banked in the go-ahead 3-pointer with 15.1 seconds to play, Maui Invitational champ Illinois appeared to be in jeopardy of a maddening loss in its first game back on the mainland.
Fortunately for the Illini, forward Tyler Griffey saved them from that fate.
Gardner-Webb sent two defenders at Brandon Paul on Illinois' final possession, which left Griffey free to the left of the top of the key. Griffey took the pass from Paul and nailed a 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds remaining, propelling the Illini to a 63-62 victory in a game they trailed by as many as eight points in the first half.
That Gardner-Webb (4-4) pushed Illinois (7-0) isn't a huge surprise.
The veteran Bulldogs won at DePaul by 12 last week and led Iowa by 23 before allowing the Hawkeyes to come back. Furthermore, the Illini were four days removed from defeating Butler to win the Maui title and three days removed from a 10-hour flight back home, circumstances that have often led to a "Maui hangover" in recent years.
In 2009, Gonzaga trailed Washington State 39-27 at home at halftime before rallying for a five-point win. In 2010, UConn trailed visiting New Hampshire at halftime before eking out 62-55 victory. And in 2011, Duke barely showed up in its first game after the title game in Maui, losing at Ohio State 85-63.
Exactly how good Illinois is will be determined in the coming weeks as the Illini face non-league challenges against Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and Missouri. Illinois' backcourt so far has been the strength of the team, but questions remain about whether Paul can remain consistent as a go-to scorer and whether any interior scorers will emerge.
Skeptics note that Illinois has faded after quick starts before and that the lone power-conference team the Illini beat in Maui was a USC team that is certainly no lock to make the NCAA tournament this season. On the other hand, the Illini are 7-0 in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. That's reason for cautious optimism regardless of Illinois' history.
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