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NCAA Tournament: Illini push Hurricanes but fall in thriller

Illinois senior Brandon Paul reacts as he walks off the court after a 63-59 loss to No. 2 Miami in an NCAA Tournament third-round game Sunday in Austin, Texas.
Illinois senior Brandon Paul reacts as he walks off the court after a 63-59 loss to No. 2 Miami in an NCAA Tournament third-round game Sunday in Austin, Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas — At the start of the season, Illinois coach John Groce presented each player with a wristband that read “3-19-13.”

The start of the NCAA tournament.

The Illini’s R.I.P. date arrived five days later on Sunday night with a 63-59 loss in the NCAA tournament at the hands of a sound No. 2-seeded Miami squad with all the makings of a championship team.

That the seventh-seeded Illini (23-13) were still ticking this late in the season will be considered a success in the team’s first year under Groce.

But as Brandon Paul slumped over for several seconds on the court, just shy of adding to another memorable March moment in the tournament, he appeared to be regretting an oh-so-close miss of a Sweet 16.

“When the clock hit zero, it just kind of hit me faster than what I thought it would that was the last game of my college career,” Paul said. “I’m proud of the way we fought tonight.”

A clutch 3-pointer and a questionable call by the officials might steal some of the attention from a tenacious Illini fight.

“I have two thoughts,” Groce said. “I thought the officiating Friday and today was tremendous. … My second thought is you saw the same video that I did.”

With 59.9 seconds left, a clutch 3-pointer by Shane Larkin, who had a quiet game prior, provided the Hurricanes with a 57-55 lead.

The Hurricanes (29-6) regained possession after it appeared they knocked the ball out of bounds after a missed shot by Richardson and made two free throws at the other end for a 59-55 lead.

Illinois continued to foul Miami in hopes of a game-stealing opportunity, but the Hurricanes made their final six free throws.

For a team that preached resiliency, the Illini showed it on their biggest stage of the season at the Erwin Center.

They remained within upset range of the Hurricanes and Paul supplied another highlight-worthy moment for his career, scoring 10 of his 18 points after halftime.

He hit back-to-back 3-pointers after starting 0-for-6 from long range and Tracy Abrams drove to tie the game 52-52. On a driving dunk by Paul, the Illini took a two-point lead off a 6-0 run with 3:22 remaining, and Abrams drew a charge to regain possession.

Both teams featured X-factors off the bench: Tyler Griffey for Illinois and Rion Brown for the Hurricanes.

Griffey, a senior, made the first four of his six 3-point shots to keep the Illini in the game as the rest of the Illini went just 3-for-21 from beyond the perimeter. D.J. Richardson went just 1-for-10.

Brown scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting.

The Illini still have not been to a Sweet 16 since Dee Brown and Deron Williams led them there in 2005.

But that is the step Groce has his eye on next.

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