Tate: What a moment for seniors
It was raining outside Thursday night and thunderous inside.
Hey, Texas Christian, step aside for Illinois. In a world of upsets — TCU, 0-8 in the Big 12, stunned Kansas on Wednesday — John Groce’s underdog battlers took their turn in the magic circle. In a whirlwind finish, the Illini arranged for a fifth No. 1 team to hit the wall.
Tyler Griffey’s game-winning layup felled Indiana, 74-72, and was greeted by an ear-splitting’ rush onto the court by a joyous Orange Krush. Enjoy yourself, gang. Triumphs of this nature don’t come around very often.
“Indiana is a great team ... I mean great,” Groce said. “They defend, they rebound, they run great stuff and they shoot. We are fortunate tonight. We’ve played some good games and lost. Tonight we played with toughness and togetherness, and I would have said the same thing if we had lost at the end.”
For 36 minutes, this had the look of a fifth consecutive home defeat, something that had never happened in the Assembly Hall. Indiana broke ahead before halftime (41-29) and carried a seemingly safe 69-59 lead into the last four minutes.
That’s when the rivers reversed their currents and the sun decided to come up in the west. That’s when four Illini seniors — gritty warriors throughout — turned the tide for what will remain one of the great Illini comebacks in Hall history.
Up to that point, dare we say, officiating calls seemed to fall in Indiana’s favor, with Nnanna Egwu fouling out on marginal whistles in 19 minutes. Up to that point, Illinois again permitted too many easy baskets as Indiana shot 50 percent (and hit 9 of 17 treys). Up to that point, the Hoosiers were in charge.
Reversal of fortune
Here’s what changed:
— The Illini got the late defensive stops that they didn’t get against Michigan and Michigan State, and they turned Indiana mistakes into points (Illinois outscored Indiana 8-0 on fast breaks and 28-16 on turnovers)
— Sam McLaurin’s goal kicked off a 15-3 finish with the four seniors garnering all 15. It wasn’t until D.J. Richardson connected on a corner trey at 70-65 that the crowd truly exploded. Then Brandon Paul stole the ball and DJR hit from the same spot, and cashed an even tougher 18-footer to tie it 70-70. Destiny had Paul’s cellphone number as, in a moment of excitement, he banked a free throw at :37 and tied it with another at 72-72. The joint was jumping.
— Indiana locked up late, producing just one field goal after Cody Zeller dunked at the 5-minute mark. When Indiana held for the last shot, Richardson swiped the ball from Victor Oladipo, who then blocked DJR’s runner at :00.9. There was just enough time to catch and shoot. With no timeouts, Indiana pressured the perimeter, and Griffey slipped inside for a layup on Paul’s in-bounds feed.
— The four seniors made 22 of 43 shots ... Griffey breaking his 0-for-22 slump on treys with two long ones ... and stepping up for his second game-winning shot of the 16-8 season (remember Gardner-Webb?).
Groce appropriately praised the seniors.
“I’m proud of them,” he said. “We were always eight or 10 points down but we hung in, and we stayed within reach. Indiana shot 50 percent but we played better defense in the second half. We’ve been improving, but we’ve been playing outstanding teams, and sometimes our improvement doesn’t show.”
Much has been made of Paul, the Big Ten’s third-highest scorer (16-plus), not starting against Wisconsin. He was in the lineup Thursday, and started on a sour note. His first shot was blocked, and he had two air balls and a turnover, all in the first two minutes. But he was a force down the stretch, finishing with 21 points (DJR had 23) and attacking the Indiana defense.
The stunning upset brought Illinois back into the NCAA tournament picture. They now have four quality wins against Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana, and only two hurtful losses to Purdue and Northwestern. With nine guaranteed games to go, it can still swing either way.
One point to remember: Illinois has played seven teams ranked in the Top 13, and beaten two of them. With strength of schedule so important, these particular losses aren’t hurtful insofar as the NCAA is concerned.
From the Indiana standpoint, this was considered a trap game. The Hoosiers were coming off three superlative efforts in defeating Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan — all brilliant performances — and have Ohio State coming up Sunday. The Hoosiers appeared vulnerable early but played well enough to carry a 10-point lead late, and then their brilliant offensive unit faltered ... just enough for the Illini to shock the world.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.