CHICAGO – The ball touched six players’ hands and was shot four times in 23 seconds on one unforgettable possession before D.J. Richardson’s 3-pointer finally drained through the net to tie the game and serve as a reminder to Illinois.
This is a team that knows how to bounce off its death bed.
Eight-seeded Illinois ultimately survived another close game after a 51-49 first-round victory Thursday against No. 9 Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament.
The ball being batted around, passed, blocked and sunk was a microcosm of the Illini’s twisting, never-say-die season.
“Fighting Illini, that’s what we have to go by,” Richardson said. “That’s our name. Minnesota had us down. We could have easily thrown in the towel, but we kept fighting back.”
His thoughts after his 3-pointer with 44 seconds left?
“Game over,” he said.
Richardson’s 3-pointer tied the game 49-49 at the United Center against surging Minnesota and would have been the most exciting play of the game if not for Brandon Paul.
Paul hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to avoid overtime and advance the Illini (22-11) to Friday’s quarterfinals against top-seed Indiana, which the Illini defeated on Tyler Griffey’s buzzer-beater in the regular season.
Add the victory to a long list of Illini comebacks, the most notable being its season resurrection after losing 7 of 9 to start Big Ten play. This one added some March momentum to the Illini, who had lost two straight to end the regular season.
“We have some seniors who love making big plays,” Richardson said. “Me and Tyler just welcomed Brandon to the game-winner club.”
Paul finished with a game-high 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting with five rebounds, two assists, two steals and no turnovers.
“We didn’t want to come in and lose three in a row,” Paul said. “We fought the whole game.”
After watching Minnesota (20-12) take over in the second half (shooting 55.6 percent) to take a four-point lead after trailing by 12, Illinois controlled the crucial final 1:20.
“Obviously Brandon’s shot was big,” coach John Groce said. “And then the possession where we got mulitple offensive rebounds that led to some opportunities where D.J. ended up making the 3 was just as big. Our last two possessions there we found a way.”
Nnanna Egwu came up with two offensive rebounds during the possession as Richardson broke out of a 1-for-11 shooting day with his clutch 3-pointer. On Minnesota’s subsequent possession, Sam McLaurin’s defense forced Austin Hollins to step out of bounds.
On the next play, Paul raced downcourt to give the Illini home-like crowd at the United Center a reason to erupt in cheers.
Illinois is considered a lock for the NCAA tournament, but can improve its seeding with its conference tournament play. Thursday was a good start. A victory Friday could provide another boost.
“We’re not really worried about that,” Paul said. “What happens with that happens when it happens.”
Star of the game: Brandon Paul,Illinois, 25 points, 10 of 16 from field, 2 assists, 2 steals, no turnovers
Bertrand watch: 2 points, 1-for-4 from field, 1 rebound, 1 steal in 19 minutes
Quarterfinal: No. 8 Illinois vs. No. 1 Indiana, 11 a.m. today