CHAMPAIGN – Illinois coach John Groce slumped into a chair, placed his head on his palm and exhaled as an orange chaos erupted all around him on the Assembly Hall court.
He had just gotten the best news in long time.
After an official review of Tyler Griffey’s buzzer-beater layup confirmed the Illini had upset No. 1 Indiana 74-72, Groce took a deep breath as the players continued to party on the court alongside the long-suffering Illini fans who already had stormed it.
“Some of the things going through my mind are kind of personal in nature,” Groce said. “One of them for sure was I was really happy for those guys.”
The Illini (16-8, 3-7), losers of six of the last seven games and of four straight on their home court, were predicted roadkill for the cruising Hoosiers (20-3, 8-2). But they showed yet again how volatile this college basketball season is as another top-rated team fell.
The resurrection was embodied by Griffey, who had entered on an 0-for-22 stretch on 3-pointers, lost his starting role and whose confidence was so drained coaches begged him to shoot.
He took an inbounds pass from Brandon Paul with 0.9 seconds left and hit an uncontested layup at the buzzer for Illinois’ first victory over a top-ranked team since it beat Wake Forest in 2004.
“I just made a simple curl cut and Brandon made a heck of a pass,” Griffey said. “It was part of a read. I didn’t expect [Cody] Zeller and [Christian] Watford right in front of me. They both kind of just stayed there.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean said it was a broken play on defense that allowed the play at the rim.
Griffey, who had received an encouraging text from Paul around 11 p.m. Wednesday, made his first 3-pointer since Jan. 2 in the second half and finished with 14 points as well as a season-high eight rebounds.
The Illini, who trailed by as many as 14 points, ended the game with a 13-2 run, including a stretch where senior guard D.J. Richardson scored eight straight points.
After Paul’s two free throws tied the game 72-72 with 37 seconds left, Richardson stole the ball from Victor Oladipo. Oladipo blocked his shot at the other end, giving the Illini the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining.
“I thought he was absolutely terrific at both ends of the floor,” Groce said of Richardson, who scored a game-high 23 points. “He battled. He fought.”
Paul added another 21 points, while Zeller’s 14 led the Hoosiers.
The Illini shot 55.2 percent in the second half and scored 28 points overall off Indiana’s 14 turnovers.
One victory does not negate the disappointment that has built up around Champaign since last season, when the team collapsed and missed the NCAA tournament. This game could be a deciding factor for the Illini as they attempt to rebuild their resume in time for selection Sunday.
“It’s a big step today,” Groce said. “Today we stuck to what we were supposed to do for the full 40 minutes and didn’t flinch. It was a good sign and a move in the right direction.”