Klee: A special night for Brandon Paul
CHAMPAIGN — A big part of Brandon Paul's game-day routine — perhaps his favorite part — is the nap.
He snoozes for a good hour, sometimes more, before heading to the Assembly Hall or wherever the game is played that night. Bruce Weber woke him up with a text message Tuesday.
"He said, 'Be special,' " Paul said.
You could argue he never woke up from that nap. Seemingly in a scoring trance, Paul's performance in Illinois' 79-74 triumph against No. 5 Ohio State was one dreams are made of.
Paul had 43 points. Yes, 43, the third-most in a single game in program history. Not only that, but he did it in front of a celebrated crowd of some of the greatest players to wear the Illinois uniform.
With legendary coach Lou Henson honored and joined by a legion of his former players, Paul made 11 of 15 shots, many with a high degree of difficulty. Only Dave Downey (53 in '63) and Andy Kaufmann (46 in '90 have scored more points in a single game.
"It was the best (performance) I've ever seen here," Flyin' Illini guard Stephen Bardo said afterward.
This gem will be saved in the Illini archives for a while. Cameras for the BTN documentary "The Journey" captured it for safekeeping, while ESPN caught it for the college basketball world to see.
The signature bucket came with 42 seconds left in regulation and roughly two seconds on the shot clock. Illinois led 71-70 and that's too close against Ohio State. So Paul all but ended it with a "crazy" three-pointer directly in front of the Illini bench, as Weber put it.
"That thing (basket) was as big as an ocean tonight," Matta said.
"Brandon makes that last free throw and it would've been fitting to have 80 points on his (Henson's 80th) birthday," Weber pointed out.
The day before the game, Weber had said the Illini needed "a Tebow experience" to lift the Illini (15-3, 4-1) over the Buckeyes (15-3, 3-2), who entered Tuesday as nearly a double-digit favorite. Paul's scoring outburst certainly would qualify.
And this came after Paul had told teammate Joseph Bertrand he was going to "give up shooting threes" just days before. Instead, he tied a school record with eight.
"It was a Tebow moment for Brandon," Weber said. "There's no doubt about that."
"It's a confidence thing," said his proud mom, Lynda Paul.
His mom said Brandon had 37 points at Gurnee Warren in high school. His previous career high at Illinois was 23.
"What a game, huh?" added his dad, Cliff Paul.
Meyers Leonard had 14 points, five rebounds and an element of nasty for Illinois. D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand added 10 apiece.
And Paul? What a time for a basketball hero to arrive. These Illini were shaky at best leading up to Tuesday's showdown. The combined record of their Big Ten victims: 1-10, and the Illini still needed last-minute surges to win all three.
Shows what that means; Illinois under Weber improved to 3-2 in home games against top-five opponents and snapped a five-game losing streak to Ohio State.
The coaches prepared a precise game plan that needed only one thing: Someone to be "special," as Weber often says.
"I've already said this a few times, but Brandon Paul played like a pro tonight," Leonard said.
Weber had been referring to Bertrand as "Superman" as the sophomore burst onto the scene of late. Leonard, who went toe to toe with mighty Jared Sullinger, offered a nickname for Paul: "Spiderman."
As Paul scored the final 15 points for Illinois — against the nation's top defensive team, in terms of efficiency — there seemed to be a superhero element involved.
"I was laughing a couple times (as crazy shots found the net)," he acknowledged. "But my teammates believed in me and my coaches believed in me."