AUSTIN, Texas – Even for a former math teacher like Illinois coach John Groce, this didn’t add up.
The seventh-seeded Illini defied the laws of probability in a momentum-swinging 57-49 victory Friday against No. 10-seed Colorado in the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Frank Erwin Center.
Despite making only three field goals in the second half, falling victim to a 23-2 Buffaloes run and enduring an 11 minute, 27 second stretch without a field goal, the Illini are advancing in the tournament for just the second time since 2006.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Groce said. “We found a way.”
The problem-solving isn’t finished, as the Illini advance to play No. 2 seed Miami on Sunday. The Illini (23-12) likely will need to show just as much calmness in a whirlwind as they did against Colorado.
“We are never down,” Illini senior Sam McLaurin said. “When it seems like we are down, we are never down and we are never out of it. We always tend to just chip away one possession at a time.”
Much like the Illinois season that was balanced between fabulous (victories over Gonzaga and Indiana) and frustrating (losses to Northwestern and Iowa), the game against Colorado was a condensed version of the last 4 months.
“It was only fitting that the game was maybe about as strange a game in terms of the ebb and flow that I’ve been associated with, that it would be that way with this group,” Groce said. “We have done it the hard way a lot this year.”
The Illini built a 37-21 halftime lead on 43.3 percent first-half shooting and limiting the Buffaloes to just 34.8 percent from the field with eight turnovers.
The lead quickly vanished at the start of the second half, when the Illini went 0-for-14 before Tracy Abrams hit a shot with 8:36 left. Before that, the Buffaloes (21-12) scored 21 straight points for a 44-39 lead with 9:30 remaining.
But it was all Colorado had to give. Thankfully for the Illini, who shot 3-for-22 after halftime, the Buffaloes also have a penchant to go from blazing to sub-zero in a blink.
They made just two field goals after taking that five-point lead.
Illinois demonstrated again what happens when a perimeter-friendly team can’t land 3-ponters. And what can happen when it does.
During the stretch of 14 straight misses, 11 were 3s.
But the Illini made the important ones.
Down 44-42, the Illini turned to their seniors to make game-changing shots as D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul hit back-to-back 3-pointers sandwiched around a Colorado turnover. They were part of a free-throw-fueled 16-2 run to reclaim control, including Paul’s 7-for-8 mark from the line.
“They were talking about staying poised and being positive,” Groce said. “That’s what we have tried to do all year.”
Star of the game: Tracy Abrams, Illinois, 13 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block
Bertrand watch: 1 point, 0-for-2 FGs, 0-for-2 3s, 1-for-2 FTs, 3 rebounds, 1 steal in 17 minutes
Up next: Third round, Illinois vs. Miami, time TBA Sunday