CHAMPAIGN — On the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Hall, the sellout crowd of 16,618 was treated to videos of past great Illinois basketball moments that took place inside the building.
Eddie Johnson’s game-winner against Michigan State, the Flyin’ Illini’s win against Georgia Tech, the dismantling of No. 1 Wake Forest in 2004 and Tyler Griffey’s layup against top-ranked Indiana from last month were among the featured clips.
D.J. Richardson’s three-pointer to give Illinois a 60-57 lead with a little less than five minutes to play against a pesky Nebraska team got the crowd on its feet and inspired one of those John Groce fist-pumps.
That shot likely won’t be shown during a video montage for the Assembly Hall’s 100th birthday if the iconic building makes it to a century, but in a montage of the 2012-13 season, it should be a highlight.
It gave the Illini a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 72-65 win and further solidified their standing as one of the 68 teams that will hear its name called on Selection Sunday in two weeks.
“He made a great cut, guys did a great job of screening and we made a good read on the play and he made a big-time shot,” Groce said of Richardson (13 points).
Richardson’s shot and the six straight free throws Tracy Abrams (16 points, four rebounds) made down the stretch allowed the crowd that was in a festive mood from the start to enjoy itself at the end.
Fans chanted “Thank you, seniors” in the closing seconds, and they gave Brandon Paul (14 points, five assists) a standing ovation after the senior guard spent more than a minute kneeling near midcourt while wiping away tears in what was likely his last game in front of the home fans.
“It was an emotional night for us,” Paul said. “It went by fast. I was more happy emotional to be able to get a win at the end of the day and all the fans chanting for us. We’ve got the greatest fans.”
Saturday belonged to the seniors, but it was a sophomore whose play kept the Illini around when Nebraska’s guard tandem of Ray Gallegos (23 points) and Dylan Talley (20 points) was going nuts for the Cornhuskers (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten).
Myke Henry scored 12 points and grabbed a career-high nine rebounds, including a key offensive board in the closing minute, to spark Illinois (21-9, 8-8).
“Myke definitely came up big,” classmate Abrams said. “I just think he was out there and he wanted to win. We all wanted to win. We wanted to do it for the seniors. He gave it his all.”
Sophomore big man Nnanna Egwu added 10 points and five rebounds for the Illini while coming off the bench for the first time this season to make room in the starting lineup for Griffey, one of four scholarship seniors.
For a senior class that’s experienced a roller coaster of ups and downs throughout their careers, Saturday will go down as a highlight.
“Just being able to compete in front of my family and friends. I have a lot of my closest friends down here that I’ve known since I was a little kid and the fans as well,” Paul said. “I was looking around, things weren’t going well for us down the stretch and everyone’s cheering, there’s orange everywhere and I’m definitely going to miss that a lot.”
The Illini sent their seniors out in style on the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Hall as five players reached double figures in scoring, marking just the second time that’s happened this season.
What the Huskers said
“They won. I thought they made plays. Paul hit some shots at the end of the clock. Abrams drove us really well; he made a lot of plays driving. I just thought they made big plays.” — coach Tim Miles
What the Illini said
“I do know that we were really poised and we made some big plays late in the game, and sometimes you have to do that and you have to find a way, especially this time of year. Style points are out in late February and March.” — coach John Groce
What it means
Illinois’ NCAA tournament chances appear to be a near lock after avoiding what would have been a third bad loss on its resume. With 21 wins, the Illini have their most regular season wins since winning 23 in 2008-09.
The Illini travel to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to face Iowa with a chance to guarantee a .500-or-better record in Big Ten play in a building they’ve won three times in their last four trips.