CHAMPAIGN — Giorgi Bezhanishvili comes from a small family. He's tremendously close with his older brother, Davit, his mother, Lali, and his grandparents.
They're the only true family he has.
In the final game of three that Davit saw Giorgi in person, Giorgi promised him he would make Davit's trip to Illinois unforgettable.
Giorgi, an Illinois freshman, kept up with his promise, scoring 35 points in Illinois' 99-94 overtime win against Rutgers at the State Farm Center on Saturday to sweep a three-game homestand.
"For me family is everything," Giorgi said. "I would do anything for my family."
Illinois (9-15, 5-8) didn't have a letdown game against Rutgers (11-12, 4-9) after the Illini upset No. 9 Michigan State on Tuesday. There were moments of bad defense and slow offense, but when Illinois needed a bucket, Giorgi delivered with a hook shot or a layup over the top of a Rutgers defender. He added seven rebounds while going 14-of-18 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line.
Davit looked on in amazement, perhaps in part at the celebrity his brother has become. Fans shouted, "Giorgi. Giorgi," throughout the arena.
“I cannot explain it," Davit said. "It’s amazing. He made sure I would never forget my visit to Illinois. After last game, I was like, ‘OK, nothing can be better than this.’ Today, he made sure ... oh my God. It’s amazing."
At one point in the second half, Giorgi scored 15 consecutive points over a 6-minute, 20-second span and scored 29 of his 35 points in the second half or overtime. His 35 points are a program record for points scored in a game by a freshman, surpassing Deon Thomas' 34-point game on Dec. 3, 1990 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Thomas was sitting courtside for the game on the radio call for the Illini Sports Network, and the two took a photo after the game.
The timing was perfect for Bezhanishvili to step into a starring role with guards Ayo Dosunmu (12 points) and Trent Frazier (17 points) battling foul trouble down the stretch in the second half.
“Obviously on a night when Ayo and Trent were fighting some foul problem, we got on the big boy’s back and rode those shoulders to 29 second-half points," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
“That’s pretty special. For a young man who didn’t have a lot of recruitment, I think he’s proven he’s a pretty good player."
Giorgi walked through the Orange Krush student section after doing a post-game TV interview to his name being chanted throughout an emptying State Farm Center. It's been quite a journey for Bezhanishvili, who was the No. 370-ranked player in the nation and didn't have many power-five scholarship offers.
“No one really looked at me," Giorgi said. "That doesn’t matter. You just keep going and working everyday. That’s what I do is work and things like this happen. Work pays off."
Rutgers' Ron Harper Jr. made a difficult bank shot at the end of regulation to give Illinois the ball with less than 10 seconds left. Dosunmu drove through the lane, but was blocked to send the game to overtime. After four quick Rutgers points to open overtime, Illinois answered back and got a 3-pointer from Frazier out of a timeout to take a one-point lead, 91-90. Again, Rutgers came back with a layup from Caleb McConnell, who had a team-high 25 points.
Giorgi was fouled on the other end and stepped to the line for a pair of free throws. With Davit under the section 108 sign, hands clasped as he watched, Giorgi buried both to give Illinois a one-point lead. He hit a floater for Illinois' next two points, and Rutgers never got as close as three points the rest of the way.
As the buzzer sounded, Giorgi, who had been imploring the crowd to get louder down the stretch, pumped his hands in the air and let out a shout.
“He was good, obviously," said Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell, whose mother died early Saturday morning. "He had a career night. We tried a lot of different guys on him, too. I like their whole team. They have a lot of different options. We did a good job on their guards; their guards have been killing people. Obviously, our defense needs to be better against a team like that."
The Giorgi show began before the game even started, with Giorgi taking popcorn off the scorer's table from scorekeeper Edgar Brummett, a Decatur native. And it continued after, with Giorgi back in front of that table, talking to Thomas. And in typical Giorgi fashion, he apologized when he learned he took Thomas' 29-year record.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, it wasn’t intentional.’ He said he wanted somebody to break it and he was happy it was me," Giorgi said. "We took a picture and it was a great moment."