Fighting Illini Hoops Crush West Virginia in Scrimmage at Italian Air Base



It is impressive that the Michigan State Spartans and North Carolina Tar Heels will take on each other in college basketball aboard the deck of an aircraft carrier. But don’t sell the Illinois Fighting Illini and West Virginia Mountaineers short. The two basketball teams visited Aviano Air Base yesterday during their summer Italian tours.

And it resulted in Illinois destroying West Virginia 47-26 in an exhibition scrimmage held in front of approximately 500 military personnel and their families. The 20-minute contest was part of a special opportunity that also saw the Illini and Mountaineers hold a youth clinic for children of the Airmen and had each team participate in a 10-minute scrimmage against the Aviano varsity unit. In those games, Illinois defeated Aviano 26-12, while West Virginia topped Aviano 25-7. The three squads also held a dunk contest for the crowd with Illini junior Joseph Bertrand claiming the victory.

Illinois started strong against West Virginia, scoring the first seven and opening up a double-digit lead three minutes in. The Illini finished the half like they started, scoring the final seven on breakaway dunks by Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson and a 3-pointer by Sam Maniscalco to take a 27-8 lead into intermission.

The Illini led by at least 16 points the entire second half, pushing the margin to as many as 26 before the Mountaineer’s tallied the final five points of the scrimmage.

The Illini shot a sizzling 62.5 percent, hitting 20-of-32 from the field and 5-of-8 from 3-point range. Illinois tallied 15 assists on 20 baskets and its pressure defense caused 15 Mountaineer turnovers.

Richardson led the Illini with 11 points and made all five of his shots. Myke Henry scored seven on 3-of-5 shooting while Maniscalco added six points on a pair of 3-pointers and had a game-high four assists. A total of 11 UI players entered the scoring column in the brief scrimmage, with Leonard, Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey registering four points apiece, Brandon Paul adding three, and Joseph Bertrand, Crandall Head, Tracy Abrams and Mike Shaw all adding two.

The win was a nice, big rebound for Illinois, who fell to the New Zealand National Team 85-84 in overtime the day before. In an extremely competitive contest featuring 22 lead changes and 13 ties, New Zealand eventually prevailed after scoring on an offensive rebound with 2.8 seconds left in OT. Prior to the game-winning putback, Brandon Paul had put the Illini in position to claim victory when he made a driving bank shot in traffic with 9.7 seconds remaining. Paul’s basket capped a rally that brought the Illini back from a 4-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining.

The Illini made a similar comeback at the end of regulation. Trailing 73-69 with 45 seconds left, Illinois forced the extra period after scoring on each of its last two possessions and harassing its opponent into a pair of turnovers. Sam Maniscalco hit two free throws with :28 left to bring the Illini within two, then the UI defense forced a 5-second call on New Zealand’s inbounds pass to regain possession. Paul drove to the basket and drew a foul, making both free throws to tie it at 73 with 18 seconds left. New Zealand tried to play for the last shot and the win, but Meyers Leonard made an outstanding defensive play and earned a steal just before time expired.

While play was erratic at times – the teams combined for 49 turnovers and 40 percent shooting – the intensity and physical play was more reminiscent of a postseason showdown in March than an exhibition game in August. And the competitiveness the Illini showed in making a number of comebacks down the stretch pleased Coach Bruce Weber and was just the type of challenge he expected his team would face against New Zealand’s national team, which will face Australia in September for 2012 Olympic qualifying.

Illinois continued to substitute players in waves and apply constant defensive pressure. That resulted in the Fighting Illini accumulating 21 steals and forcing 29 New Zealand turnovers. Those turnovers helped to offset New Zealand’s 52-39 advantage on the boards.

Paul led the Illini with 18 points. He hit just four field goals but made his way to the free throw line repeatedly, connecting on 9-of-13 from the stripe. Paul also had team highs of four steals and three assists while adding three rebounds. Maniscalco shot 5-of-8 from the field and tallied 14 points, while Tyler Griffey also reached double figures, adding 13 points.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports 

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter


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