CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois center Nnanna Egwu fouled out with the Illini trailing No. 1 Indiana by eight points with 4 minutes, 50 seconds remaining Thursday, that angry vein in John Groce’s forehead was ready to burst.
Illinois’ first-year coach was hot at the officiating crew and on the verge of earning a technical foul.
Tyler Griffey sprinted over to his coach, gathered his teammates and said, “It’s all right, we’ve got this.”
The 6-foot-9 senior was playing with a renewed confidence after snapping an 0-for-22 shooting slump from behind the three-point line early in the second half. And he made his words come true, slipping out of the grasp of Indiana’s Christian Watford with 0.9 second remaining for a wide-open layup at the buzzer. The basket gave the Illini to a 74-72 win in front of a sold-out Assembly Hall crowd.
“I just said to myself ‘Finally,’ ” said Griffey, who scored 14 points and had a season-high eight rebounds.
“I’ve gotten a lot of shots up from when I started missing until now, so much so that my wrist has been hurting. I’ve been talking to (athletic trainer) Paul (Schmidt) about getting ice and treatment on my wrist. Once I saw that one go down, it was a good confidence-builder.”
As the Illinois players celebrated with the Orange Krush student section, which stormed the court, Griffey’s dad Chris watched from the north baseline as his son was being interviewed by ESPN.
“It’s been tough, it’s been really tough,” Chris Griffey said, tears forming in his eyes and his voice cracking. “He’s had a really good attitude about it. I’ve always preached never be too high and never get too low. He’s just got to fight through it and he has. He’s 22 years old, he’s a young man now.”
The officials reviewed the shot as a celebration was going on behind them to make sure Griffey, whose name will go down in Illinois annals with the likes of Nick Anderson and Andy Kaufmann for their buzzer-beating heroics, got it off in time. After they signaled it good, Groce clasped his hands, sat down in a chair on the Illinois bench and put his head in his hands.
It was his first win as a head coach against a No. 1 team and Illinois’ first since knocking off Wake Forest in December 2004 at the Assembly Hall.
“I was happy for the seniors,” Groce said. “Some of the things that were going through my mind, to be honest with you, are kind of personal in nature. One of them, for sure, was the fact that I was really happy for those guys.”
It was the seniors who helped carry the Illini (16-8, 3-7 Big Ten) to their fourth win this season against teams currently ranked in the Top 15 in the country.
D.J. Richardson (23 points, three steals) made back-to-back threes down the stretch to slice into the Indiana lead. Sam McLaurin had five points and a pair of assists while making life hard for National Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller (14 points, nine rebounds) in the paint after Egwu fouled out.
And Brandon Paul (21 points), who was pulled from the starting lineup Sunday against Wisconsin in large part because he wasn’t defending to the level the coaching staff wanted, blocked a Victor Oladipo (nine points, five assists) shot late to keep the door open for the Illini, who trailed by as many as 14.
“I was going to bed last night at 11, 11:30 and I get a text from Brandon and what he basically said was we’re both struggling to make shots and we’ve just got to find other ways to contribute to the team, help our team win,” Griffey said. “We both made plays down the stretch and did that.”
It’s the fifth straight week the No. 1 team in the country has lost. Indiana (20-3, 8-2) earned the top billing after knocking off then-No. 1 Michigan on Saturday.
“They’re very deserving of the win because they never gave in. You could see on film that they were maturing, that they were getting better,” Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said. “This is still the same group of young men that started the season the way that they did. They’re a high-level offensive team and we didn’t put them away when we had opportunities and that’s really what the bottom line is.”
As the Illinois students who rushed the floor celebrated with the players, former Illini Lucas Johnson and Robert Archibald stood around the court and snapped photos and high-fived one another.
“This is awesome, as a player it’s one thing but as a fan it’s a different experience,” Johnson said. “Those guys fought their butts off tonight and they deserve this victory.
“We played No. 1 and we never beat No. 1 when I was here. It’s awesome to do this on our home floor, especially against Indiana and everything they’ve been going through. This is a turnaround for this team. I think they’re going to rise. This is unbelievable for the program.”
Thursday’s win will help Illinois’ NCAA tournament resume and will also help to erase the sour taste of losses to Purdue and Northwestern.
But the celebration after the program’s third win all time against top-ranked teams will be short-lived as a road test at No. 18 Minnesota awaits Sunday.
“I want these guys, obviously, to make great decisions and enjoy one another’s company, they should be proud of their effort today,” Groce said.
“When we wake up tomorrow, we’re not getting absorbed with one game win or lose, we’ve said that all along. It’s on to the next game starting tomorrow.”