Illinois keeps moving in right direction with 71-62 victory in ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
He's scored more in a college game, but Illinois senior point guard Sam Maniscalco is playing on a different stage and making a first impression all over again. The fifth-year transfer from Bradley finished with a game-high 24 points and made the heady plays down the stretch to lead Illinois to a 71-62 win over Maryland Tuesday. While Illinois won in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge for the third consecutive year, the rest of the basketball world is getting to know Maniscalco after his days in Peoria. "I'm definitely surprising people, but I'm not surprising myself,'' Maniscalco said. "That's just me. I'm not bragging or anything like that. I have high expectations for myself. "It's not about me. It's about this team and where we're going.'' In the first test against a power conference foe, the Illini kept going in the right direction because of Maniscalco and junior guard Brandon Paul, the roommates who took turns carrying the Illini. After Paul played himself out of an early-season funk by scoring 17 points and saving the Illini in the first half, Maniscalco took over in the second half. "It was our first real national test on the road,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We still have very good potential. We've got some nice pieces.'' Illinois (7-0) hosts No. 19 Gonzaga Saturday (2:15 p.m., ESPN2). If the Illini couldn't win here, it figured to get tougher on the road during the Big Ten Conference season. Maryland (3-3) was picked to finish ninth in the ACC and already lost by 20 to Alabama and 26 to Iona. The young Illini entered the game undefeated after warming up with wins over mid-major and low-major teams. "It's huge,'' Maniscalco said. "It's good for our confidence going forward. It's good for the young guys seeing a national stage, an ACC school, an unbelievable atmosphere and coming out with a win. It boosts our team morale. Coach stressed all week that you have to find a way to win. It might not be pretty or easy. We found a way to win tonight.'' Truthfully, Maniscalco found the way down the stretch. Maniscalco finished a left-handed layup on back for a 63-57 lead with 2 minutes 23 seconds left. With Illinois leading by five with the shot clock evaporating and Maniscalco pinned at the free-throw line, he somehow scooped a shot off the rim, grabbed the rebound and called timeout. "He's definitely a difference-maker,'' Weber said. "We needed experience and maturity. He brings both of those to the table.'' Guard D.J. Richardson made two free throws on the ensuing possession, and the Illini had some breathing room. Maniscalco didn't come close to the 31 points he scored in a game for Bradley against Creighton two years ago, but he's made an impression with his teammates, if not anyone who was watching this made-for-TV challenge between two of the nation's top leagues. He was 6 of 11 from the field, 5 of 8 from the 3-point line and made all seven free throws he attempted. If anyone asks, tell them Maniscalco reminds you of Matt Heldman, the heady Illini point guard more than a decade ago who's the namesake for the Matto Award. "I played at Bradley for four years,'' Maniscalco said. "We weren't on the national level like Illinois. I'm not focused on myself or making a name for myself. This is about Illinois making a name for itself again and getting back on the map.'' Paul scored 13 points in the first half, when the Illini trailed by nine early. Quiet in the season's first six games, Paul was more aggressive, and he ignited the Illini. When Illinois trailed 35-31 at halftime, it seemed like a new game. "It should have been a 12-point game at halftime, and then it might have been a different outcome,'' said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. The victory was Weber's 200th in his ninth season with the Illini. "We need to get No. 201 on Saturday,'' he said. NOTES: Freshman guard Devin Langford was cleared to play after suffering a broken finger last month. He practiced with the Illini Monday. . . Illinois won for the first time in three tries at Maryland. . . John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Front court -- A The Tyler Griffey-to-Meyers Leonard high-low game worked late in a key play. While Griffey boosted his confidence, Leonard showed flashes of his ability. Back court -- A When Sam Maniscalco and Brandon Paul are this prodcutive, the Illini should be tough to beat. Bench -- C Whether it's coach Bruce Weber or a lack of performance from the subs, the Illini didn't share many minutes. Overall -- A- This wasn't a high-level game like No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Duke, but Illinois took a step in the right direction. A tougher test awaits with No. 19 Gonzaga Saturday, and the Illini get to play that one at home. It should be interesting.