By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS Associated Press
SPOKANE — Brandon Paul of No. 13 Illinois figured his team needed a pep talk after rallying to tie No. 10 Gonzaga at halftime in their showdown of unbeaten teams.
“I kept telling everybody, `This is it. We’ve got to take this right now,” Paul said. “We’re not playing well, but we’re still in this game.”
His teammates listened.
Paul finished with 35 points to lead Illinois over Gonzaga 85-74 on Saturday.
“A lot of people doubted us,” Paul said. “We came into the game as underdogs. We love that stuff.”
Paul, a senior guard, made 10 of 16 field goals, including five of nine 3-pointers. He made 10 of 11 free throws, and added three assists, two blocks and three steals.
“He looked like a high-level NBA guy,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t have a guy who could guard him one-on-one basically.”
Tracy Abrams added 14 points for Illinois (10-0) and new coach John Groce is off to the best debut for an Illinois coach in the team’s modern history.
“I thought our toughness and togetherness was exemplary,” Groce said.
Groce had called his players out after they narrowly escaped from Western Carolina on Tuesday. “What a response,” he said.
Kelly Olynyk scored 16 points to lead Gonzaga (9-1). Elias Harris added 15 and Gary Bell Jr. had 12.
The Zags were hampered by 38 percent shooting in the second half, after shooting 60 percent in the opening half.
“We had a lot of good looks and didn’t shoot it as well as we wanted,” Few said. “We missed some wide open looks.”
Gonzaga led most of the first half, although Illinois came back to tie the game at halftime at 41.
Myke Henry’s basket gave Illinois its first lead of the game at 44-43 in the opening seconds of the second half, and the Illini pushed that to 54-49 by making all five of their field goals to open the half.
Henry’s 3-pointer gave Illinois a 59-51 lead. Two baskets by Przemek Karnowski cut Illinois’ lead to 61-58.
But shooting woes hurt Gonzaga in the second half, and D.J. Richardson’s 3-pointer gave the Illini a 68-59 lead.
Gonzaga was held without a field goal for 6 minutes, then got consecutive baskets from Olynyk and Bell to close within 68-64.
Paul replied with two baskets for a 73-64 Illini lead with 5:45 left.
Gonzaga rallied, and Kevin Pangos’ free throw cut Illinois’ lead to 75-71 with 2:51 left.
But Paul completed a 3-point play to give Illinois a 78-71 lead with 2:29 left. Tracy Abrams hit two more free throws for an 80-71 Illini lead, and Gonzaga started taking desperation shots.
In the first half, Gonzaga made six of its first seven shots to jump to a 14-6 lead. Paul’s free throw cut Gonzaga’s lead to 20-16, but David Stockton replied with a 3-pointer for the Bulldogs, and they went on to build a 31-20 lead.
Illinois fought back with a 12-2 run, and Paul’s free throws tied the score at 35.
The score was tied at 41 at halftime, and Paul led all players with 18 points in the half for the Illini.
Illinois, which leads the NCAA with an average of 10.8 3-pointers per game, made 11 of 26 from long range.
“I didn’t want to rely too much on the 3, but they were giving me open shots,” Paul said.
Illinois had lost five straight games to ranked teams. Illinois’ previous road win over a ranked team came in 2010.