LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Illinois caught a huge wave of scoring in Hawaii and rode it all the way to the Maui Invitational title.
Now, the Illini are hoping to carry that success to bigger tournaments that start in March.
“We are excited – we are not done,” Illinois coach John Groce said Wednesday night after Illinois beat Butler 78-61 to top an eight-team field that included No. 9 North Carolina and Marquette.
“It is an extremely great start for our basketball team, but we have to make sure we do not eat the poisonous pill of success,” Groce said.
Brandon Paul scored 20 points to lead Illinois in the team’s third straight double-digit win.
“We came out with the mindset that we wanted to prove ourselves, and I think we did that,” Paul said. “We’re in no shape to just stop right here.”
The Illini (6-0) held off several attempts by Butler to string points together in the second half. Paul was one of four players in double figures, along with Tracy Abrams with 17 points and Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson with 14 each.
Illinois shot 48 percent as Butler (3-2) relied almost exclusively on point guard Rotnei Clarke to score. Clarke had 27 points and took nearly one-third his team’s shots.
Butler coach Brad Stevens said he feels Illinois is better than people think, and Paul is a top-notch professional prospect.
“Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with them,” Stevens said.
After the buzzer, the Illini players went to center court to get gray championship T-shirts and kukui nut leis. Paul got a special lei as tournament MVP and held up a basketball-shaped trophy as a contingent of Illinois fans cheered.
Illinois won by outshooting Butler in the first half and countering each Bulldog run in the second.
After the Bulldogs pulled within five points with 12:26 left, the Illini went on a 10-point run highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Griffey. He hit one from the right side, and after Kellen Dunham missed a 3 on the other end, Griffey took a pass and fired successfully from near the top of the key.
While Clarke scored 16 points in the first half for Butler, his teammates made only four baskets.
In the middle of a nine-point run, Paul gave Illinois a 12-point lead with a straightaway 3-pointer after Clarke missed on the other end. One basket later, the Illini led 37-22 with less than four minutes left in the half.
Illinois and Butler each reached the tournament’s title game by winning games on consecutive days.
Butler opened the event with a buzzer-beating win over Marquette, 72-71, after Clarke launched a running 22-foot 3-pointer from the right side as time expired. The Bulldogs then outplayed North Carolina in the second round, halting several comeback attempts from the Tar Heels en route to an 11-point win.
Illinois easily won its first two games, beating USC by 30 and Division II Chaminade by 24. It never trailed in the tournament.
Groce said he felt honored to top the field.
“Our guys are humbled,” he said.
Illinois and Butler had not played each other since 1971.
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