Illinois blasts USC to reach Maui semifinals

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Illinois is enjoying a pretty good trip to Hawaii so far.
Two more wins would make it truly special.
Brandon Paul hit a season-high six 3-pointers to finish with a game-high 26 points, and Illinois advanced to the winners' bracket of the EA Sports Maui Invitational for the fourth time in as many appearances with a 94-64 win over USC on Monday night.
The Illini figure to have a good shot to make it to the title game, as they play the host school, Division II Chaminade, in a semifinal game Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. EST at the Lahaina Civic Center.
The Silverswords upset Texas, 86-73, for just their seventh win in 83 games as host of the tournament.
"We were focused in when (Chaminade) was playing, but we caught a glimpse of what they can do," said Paul, who added six rebounds and two steals. "They're a team not to be taken lightly."
Butler and North Carolina meet in the other semifinal.
The Trojans and Longhorns will play at 5 p.m. EST on Tuesday in the losers' bracket.
Three days after D.J. Richardson's 3-pointer at the buzzer beat Hawaii in overtime over on Oahu, the Illini (4-0) crushed USC (2-1) in the opening 20 minutes on Maui, leading 57-26 at the break.
Illinois shot 68 percent (22-for-32) in the first half, and Paul hit consecutive 3-pointers down the stretch to help the Illini go on a 15-2 run and lead by as many as 34.
"I thought tonight the start to the game was critical," first-year Illinois coach John Groce said. "We really moved the ball -- it was a free-flowing first half -- and I thought the tempo was to our liking."
USC coach Kevin O'Neill sensed his team was in trouble from the start, calling a timeout less than two minutes into the game after just two Illinois baskets.
The Trojans closed within a point before Illinois ripped off a 16-2 run to start the blowout.
"I've been at USC for four years now, and we've never gotten beat that bad," O'Neill said. "We got set back on our heels, and once they started making shots, their confidence grew and ours went down."
Richardson continued his hot shooting from the outside, nailing back-to-back 3-pointers for a 22-9 lead.
Things continued to get out of hand for USC as Illinois poured on the pressure, converting two three-point plays on the way to a 33-14 advantage.
The Trojans wilted under Illinois' gritty man-to-man defense, committing 17 turnovers that led to 31 Illini points.
"I thought the first half is about as good as we've defended thus far this season," Groce said.
USC's starting trio of guards combined for nine turnovers to only one assist in the first half, allowing Illinois to put the game out of reach early.
Southern California, which is picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, showed its inexperience. The Trojans' 17-man roster includes 12 players who are freshmen or sophomores.
USC returns four starters, but three missed significant time last season, including starting point guard Jio Fontan, who sat out the whole season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Fontan finished with 10 points, five turnovers and only one assist. Eric Wise scored a team-high 13 points for USC, which never got its deficit under 18 points in the second half.
"It's easy to play when you're behind, and it's harder to play when you have a lead like they had," O'Neill said. "Tonight we didn't do anything."
Richardson added 13 points, and Tracy Abrams had 11 points and eight assists -- with eight turnovers -- for Illinois.
"I thought Tracy forced some things in the second half, but he's been playing really well for us," Groce said. "Obviously the eight assists I like -- the eight turnovers I don't -- but the one thing that I know about Tracy Abrams is that he dislikes it more than I do."