John Groce’s Illini saved their best for last.
In the center ring of basketball’s March Madness on Sunday, Brandon Paul and the Illini came within 64 ticks of joining the lineup of Cinderellas — La Salle, Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon — in the NCAA round of 16.
The underdogs were leading 55-54 as the clock wound toward a minute when the star of Miami’s ACC champions, guard Shane Larkin, swished a difficult, step-back trey to break the UI’s hold on tight finishes.
The Hurricanes closed out a 63-59 decision with six straight free throws and will advance against Marquette in Washington, D.C.
The Austin thriller marked the first time in 36 games that Illinois has lost when it led late.
But these Illini were never more courageous, showing the results of a magical coaching performance by Groce, who transformed a squad that was shattered a year ago. What we saw in Texas was a defensively tenacious quintet that hauled down 15 offensive boards and won the rebound battle against a bigger opponent, 36-33.
“This was hard to swallow,” Groce said. “I’ve loved being around these guys, and I’ll be forever grateful for the way they represented the university.”
Going out in style
The stretch run was breathtaking with Paul draining three-pointers around the six-minute mark and, after Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams chipped in to tie it, Paul erupted for a spectacular dunk to put Illinois ahead 54-52.
But it wasn’t to be. Paul’s runningmate, D.J. Richardson, had several open opportunities from his favorite arc spots but couldn’t connect in a 1-for-11 nightmare, and Illinois shot 37.7 percent, which is almost exactly the team average for the last dozen games. By contrast, Rion Brown, a junior who averaged 6.0 with Shane and the Seniors this season, tallied 21 points to become Miami’s fifth different 20-point scorer in the last six games.
With a history of losing close games in tournament play, the Illini came within that final minute of producing their biggest upset in NCAA history.
Despite being pegged a 6- to 8-point underdog, they never appeared awed. In fact, they came out strong and hard.
Groce has favored the three-pointer all season — 24 attempts per game — but the Illini never launched them as quickly as they did early Sunday.
Even as Paul missed three, Tyler Griffey popped three in a row and Richardson added another as the Illini bombers took advance of fastbreak situations before the Miami defense got set.
The strategy was golden as Illinois surged ahead 16-12 through 10 minutes but, as happened so often in a 23-13 season, it proved to be fool’s gold as Miami shut down arc opportunities. After making 4 of 7, the Illini closed out 3 for 20.
What about next season?
The Illini lineup will look a lot different when they play their next game.
Gone will be 58 percent of the points, 72.5 percent of the treys, 62 percent of the free throws and 45 percent of the rebounds.
No Big Ten team loses so much through the graduation of (four) seniors, although several others like Michigan and Indiana could be severely impacted if all-stars turn pro.
In any case, patience will again be called for as Illinois tries to emerge from a seven-season stretch that provided just two NCAA victories.
While long-range prospects appear promising under the astute direction of Groce, next season could be trying with Illinois again projected in the Big Ten’s second division.
The nucleus quartet of Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry has shown promise at times. But here are the cold facts: As starting point guard, Abrams averaged just 3.4 assists and shot 27 percent from the arc ... the other three combined for 46 assists all season (Henry had just five) ... Egwu scored more than 10 points just four times in 36 games (he had 12 Sunday)... Bertrand had two field goals in two Austin outings and scored 10 points once in the last 12 games.
Groce will be obliged to locate ballhandling, rebounding and scoring help from Rayvonte Rice and five incoming freshmen.
At the same time, there’ll be bumpy moments as the coach must clear room (no current scholarships are available) to recruit current high school juniors. Especially high on his list are five-star prospects 6-9 Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie, 6-4 JaQuan Lyle of Evansville Bosse and 6-7 Leron Black of White Station in Memphis ... these three drawing attention because the UI is high on their lists.
It’s possible to win without five-star blue chippers but, with the Big Ten operating at an elite level, quality talent is a necessity. Latest ESPN Top 10 ratings show 60 high school seniors ranked ahead of the UI’s top-ranked recruits, Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn (No. 61) and Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill (No. 68).
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.