LAHAINA - The Illinois basketball team came to the Valley Isle unranked, underappreciated - and undaunted.
With a no-doubt-about-it run through the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Illini know what they are all about. Butler does, too, after Illinois dispatched the Bulldogs 78-61 in Wednesday night's championship game at the Lahaina Civic Center.
"I need to take a deep breath," Illinois coach John Groce said as he sat down to meet the media. "Obviously, we feel extremely privileged and honored to win such a prestigious tournament. I carried the trophy with the guys up to the locker room. You see the names that are on that trophy, and it really puts it in perspective."
Myke Henry (left) and Nnanna Egwu celebrate with the Wayne Duke Trophy after Illinois defeated Butler on Wednesday in the EA Sports Maui Invitational title game at the Lahaina Civic Center.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Illinois (6-0) ran through Southern California, Chaminade and Butler (3-2) by a combined score of 256-186. The closest call was the title game, and the 23.3-point average margin of victory is the largest in the event since North Carolina romped through the field by 29.7 points in 2008 - the Tar Heels won the NCAA title that season.
Brandon Paul, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, scored 20 points in the final, and three teammates reached double figures as well - Tracy Abrams added 17 points, while D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey each had 14. Richardson, a 6-foot-3 guard, also had nine rebounds.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Griffey midway through the second half in the middle of a 10-0 run lifted the Illini to a 59-44 lead with 8 minutes, 5 seconds left. Griffey is a 6-foot-9, 220-pound post player, and Butler left him unguarded when he drifted away from the basket.
Maui Invitational Champions
"In the second half we really stayed home and went away from our core system quite a bit," said Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens. "It got us back in the game until Griffey hit those two 3s."
A 3-pointer by Rotnei Clarke got Butler within 49-44 with 12:26 left before Griffey hit the daggers. Griffey was 4-for-5 on 3-pointers in the game, and missed his only shot inside the arc.
"Well, I missed my first one and coach (Dustin) Ford, our assistant coach, came up to me and put me back in the game," Griffey said. "He said, 'Don't hesitate. If you hesitate, you're coming out.' I said, 'OK, coach.' "
After the 10-0 run, Butler would not get closer than nine the rest of the way. Clarke finished with 27 points on 10-for-19 shooting, but the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer was Khyle Marshall with eight.
"We were just trying to do whatever we could to get going," said Clarke, who like Richardson was on the all-tournament team. "Whether that was me being aggressive or trying to get to the hole or scoring a little bit or other guys scoring. We were just trying to get into a groove and get something going."
That never developed - the rest of the Bulldogs combined to shoot 12-for-42 (28.6 percent).
Stevens said he was not concerned that Clarke, the point guard who starts every Butler possession when he is on the floor, took eight more shots than any of his teammates and finished with one assist and five turnovers.
"If he's not feeling it he's got the same green light," Stevens said. "Here's why: I think there aren't five guys that have played college basketball in the last 10 years that have put in as much time as him. So, he deserves to shoot as much as he wants."
Groce is the first coach to win a Maui title in his first year at a school since Dayton won under Brian Gregory in 2003. Groce also became the first Illinois coach to win his first six games since Harry Combes opened 7-0 in 1947.
Groce said the dominance started with defense Wednesday night.
"We got a lot of stops and we were out running," Groce said. "I thought the start of the second half Butler made a lot of adjustments in terms of trying to take advantage of stuff with ball screens and stuff like that. I thought we were taking the ball out of the net too much to start the second half. We weren't able to get out and run. But once we started getting more stops, which we were able to string them together midway through the second half, I thought we were able to get running again."
The Illini ended the fourth-longest title drought among the major conferences - the Big Ten had not produced a Maui champion since Indiana won in 2002.
Illinois did not trail at any point on Maui this year - the only tie Wednesday was at 2-2.
Groce wasn't hearing any talk of a preseason media poll that picked the Illini ninth in the Big Ten.
"I didn't know that," the coach deadpanned.
Griffey immediately chimed in, "We don't look at that. Final rankings are the ones that matter. Sorry to be blunt."
Groce said that a win in a tournament like this has been a long time coming for the team's veterans.
"Obviously, it's a great start and I'm happy for these guys," he said. "These guys have been through a lot, especially the seniors - Tyler and Brandon and D.J.; and Sam (McLaurin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina) has been a tremendous addition to our class of seniors as well. So, I'm happy for those guys, really happy for Illini Nation."
The raucous Illinois crowd didn't sit down for most of the last half of the game.
"I had no idea we sold that many (tickets)," Groce said. "It was unbelievable the turnout we had. Tremendous support from our fans, so we're blessed and thankful for that."
Stevens said Illinois has something special going on.
"It is very, very rarely when you have a new coach come in and the pieces fit to that system this well," Stevens said. "It is so perfect. The way John likes to play, the way they spread the floor with four shooters, and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anybody that thinks that is a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with because they will go on a bunch of 9-0 runs this year and end games."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com
Jones 3-6 1-3 7, Marshall 3-9 2-3 8, Smith 1-4 0-0 2, Clarke 10-19 1-2 27, Dunham 1-11 2-2 4, Smeathers 1-2 0-0 3, Morgan 0-1 3-4 3, Barlow 0-0 1-2 1, Fromm 3-4 0-0 6, Aldridge 0-0 0-0 0, El. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0, Em. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0, Woods 0-2 0-1 0, Stigall 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 22-61 10-17 61.
Griffey 4-6 2-2 14, Egwu 2-3 2-2 6, Richardson 5-11 2-2 14, Paul 6-13 6-6 20, Abrams 5-9 6-6 17, McLaurin 1-4 2-3 4, Bertrand 0-1 0-0 0, LaTulip 0-0 0-0 0, Shaw 0-0 0-0 0, Henry 1-3 0-0 3, Langford 0-0 0-0 0, Djimde 0-0 0-0 0, Berardini 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-50 20-21 78.
Halftime-Illinois 39-28. 3-Point Goals-Butler 7-28 (Clarke 6-13, Smeathers 1-2, Smith 0-1, Morgan 0-1, Stigall 0-2, Dunham 0-9), Illinois 10-25 (Griffey 4-5, Paul 2-7, Richardson 2-7, Abrams 1-2, Henry 1-3, Bertrand 0-1). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Butler 37 (Woods 8), Illinois 31 (Richardson 9). Assists-Butler 11 (Jones 3), Illinois 11 (Paul, Richardson 4). Total Fouls-Butler 17, Illinois 19. A-2,400.