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FINAL: Illinois 51, Minnesota 49

CHICAGO — If he has hit a bigger shot than this, Brandon Paul couldn’t remember it. He’d have a hard time matching it.

Paul nailed a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer and finished with 25 points to lead Illinois to a 51-49 victory over Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.

“I didn’t want to lose. We worked too hard to get to this point,” Paul said. “This team has so much character. My mindset was just to be aggressive. Coach told me to stay aggressive. I basically wanted to attack on offense and do other things. I’m more excited about I didn’t turn the ball over today.”

Illinois (22-11) led by as much as 12 but was trailing by three when D.J. Richardson nailed a 3 with 47 seconds left to tie it at 49. That basket came after the Illini missed four shots on the possession.

The Gophers (20-12) had a chance to win it, but Austin Hollins stepped on the sideline after catching an inbounds pass with 14 seconds left. Paul then went the other way and pulled up left of the free throw line for the winner as time expired, sending the eighth-seeded Illini to the quarterfinals Friday against top-seeded and third-ranked Indiana.

Paul was the only player to score in double figures for the Illini, who shot just 32.1 percent and were outrebounded 38-26. They pulled this one out, anyway, because they had more offensive rebounds (12) than Minnesota (11) and committed just six turnovers while the Gophers had 19.
Coach John Groce said he was “50-50” about calling a timeout before the winning shot but “decided to ride with it.”

“The big thing that we were trying to do there is make sure he didn’t go until between five and seven on the game clock because we wanted to make sure we got the last shot,” Groce said.

Now, they’ll get Indiana again, a team they beat last month. The Gophers will have to wait and see what’s next.

Illinois was leading 32-22 early in the second half when Minnesota went on a 19-4 run.

The Gophers scored 10 straight, getting back-to-back 3-pointers by Andre Hollins and a three-point play by Andre Ingram to tie it before Nnanna Egwu scored on a put-back for Illinois. Minnesota continued to pour it on, though, and Austin Hollins finished the run by hitting three free throws to make it 41-36 with 8:35 remaining.

It remained tight right up until Paul hit that jumper at the end, sending a loud roar through the arena.

That came after a huge basket by Richardson, who had missed two 3-pointers on that possession before tying it. He was just 2 of 12 in the game but delivered the end.

“My teammates found me, I kept shooting,” Richardson said. “I’m a shooter, that’s what coach wanted me to do. I didn’t think about (the missed shots).”

All that came after a first half that was nothing short of ugly.

Paul scored 12 as Illinois built a 25-16 lead despite hitting just 9 of 24 shots, but as bad as things were for them, multiply it a few times for Minnesota. — AP

ILLINOIS 51, MINNESOTA 49
MINNESOTA (20-12)
Mbakwe 3-4 2-2 8, Williams 2-7 1-2 5, An. Hollins 4-10 2-2 13,  Coleman 2-6 0-0 4, Au. Hollins 4-5 5-5 16, Welch 0-2 0-0 0,  Osenieks 0-1 0-2 0, Ahanmisi 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 0-0 0-0 0,  Ingram 1-4 1-1 3, Eliason 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-40 11-14 49.
ILLINOIS (22-11)
Griffey 2-8 0-0 4, Egwu 2-6 2-2 6, Richardson 2-12 0-0 6,  Abrams 1-5 4-5 6, Paul 10-16 1-1 25, McLaurin 0-3 2-2 2,  Bertrand 1-4 0-0 2, Henry 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 18-56 9-10 51.
Halftime—Illinois 25-16. 3-Point Goals—Minnesota 6-17 (Au. Hollins  3-4, An. Hollins 3-9, Welch 0-1, Ahanmisi 0-1, Williams 0-2), Illinois  6-25 (Paul 4-8, Richardson 2-8, Henry 0-2, Abrams 0-3, Griffey 0-4).  Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Minnesota 38 (An. Hollins 8), Illinois 26  (Egwu 6). Assists—Minnesota 13 (Coleman, An. Hollins 3), Illinois 8  (Abrams, Paul, Richardson 2). Total Fouls—Minnesota 13, Illinois 15.  A—NA.

Illinois 34, Minnesota 34 — 11:27 second half

An Austin Hollins three and a Trevor Mbakwe hustle play to start the half got Minnesota jazzed up.

Hollins hit two more threes early in the second half, but Minnesota couldn't take care of the ball and the Illini continued to turn those into points.

The impressive things is Minnesota has started each half real well, but Illinois maintained poise and weathered the storm.

Brandon Paul is back to wearing his No. 3 jersey.

Bo Boroski called Sam McLaurin for a foul away from the ball battling with Mbakwe in the post. No one in the building could figure out the call.

The 16 points the Gophers scored in the first half were one more than the fewest Illinois had allowed all season. Northwestern scored 15 in the first half a few weeks ago a few miles away in Evanston.

Minnesota got 13 on the first six-plus minutes of the second half, led by the Hollinses. Austin and Andre each hit two threes early in the second half as Minnesota cut deep into the Illini lead.

Nnanna Egwu went 24 minutes without picking up a foul. He's got three of them now at about the midway point of the half. The Gophers have found their confidence, Illinois has to regain its swagger.

The Illini are 3 for 15 (20 percent) from the floor in the second had and 1 for 8 (12.5 percent) from long range. Got to throw a few of them in the bucket.

Illinois 25, Minnesota 16 — Halftime

ESPN.com analytics guy John Gasaway has coined the term "Brandon Paul Moment." When a guy guys goes nuts, it's called a Brandon Paul Moment. BP3 went for 43 against Ohio State last year and 35 at Gnzaga this year, thus, the Brandon Paul Moment.

Minnesota's Andre Hollins had a Brandon Paul Moment against Memphis this season with 41 points. 

When Kansas' Elijah Johnson scored 39 points at Iowa State a few weeks ago, Gasaway called it a Brandon Paul Moment.

Brandon Paul looks like he's having a Brandon Paul Moment. The senior scored 10 of Illinois' first 13 points and has 12 at the half. He looks confident and he's defending, too, and has three boards

A fan behind me yelled "John Groce, you're my hero!"

Surprised Tubby Smith didn't bring Mbakwe and Austin Hollins back in after they each picked up two fouls and the Illini went on the 19-2 run. It's tournament time, got to play your guys. He's won a national title, what do I know?

Bertrand made a nice baseline move and finished with a dunk. I think he might be back.

Jared Sullinger is here. John Groce might have been involved in his early recruitment to Ohio State.

Andre Hollins, Minnesota's leading scorer, didn't record his first field goal until hitting a three in transition in the final minute of the half.

Brandon Paul's No. 3 jersey has blood on it, so he's back in that No. 12 jersey. He debuted it against the Gophers in the first meeting back in Champaign.

Illinois shot 9 for 24 (37.5 percent) from the floor and 3for 11 (27.3 percent) from long range.

D.J. Richardson has three points and four other guys have two points apiece.

Minnesota shot 6 for 22 (27.3 percent) from the floor and 2 for 10 from deep.

Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins each have five points.

Minnesota turned it over 11 times and Illinois scored 10 points off those. Illinois gave it away four times, three of them coming pretty close to one another.

Minnesota outrebounded Illinois 20-12 with eight offensive boards, but only two second-chance points.

Illinois 7, Minnesota 7 — 11:19 first half

During the startling lineup introductions, John Groce shouted at Tyler Griffey: "Let's go, Griff — confidence!"

Nnanna Egwu and Trevor Mbakwe were a little anxious at the opening tip. The official had to reset a few times. In hockey, one of them would have gotten the boot from the circle.

Sam McLaurin and Joseph Bertrand were the first Illinois subs. Bertrand, who missed the Ohio State game, checked in at the first media timeout.

Bertrand is wearing a black brace protecting his right shoulder.

The Illini are doubling Mbakwe early when the big man gets the ball in the post. That worked really well for them in Minnesota after Mbakwe had a big first half.

I don't see Emily Weber with the Illinois cheerleaders. She might be in Kansas City watching her dad, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, coach in that conference tournament.

Pretty good crowd here for the early game. I'd say it's about 3/4 full. Lots of Minnesota fans made the trip.

Austin Hollins, who had five of Minnesota's first seven points, picked up two quick fouls. He went to the bench. Big development.

Trevor Mbakwe got two quick fouls while trying to get offensive rebounds, too. Illinois must take advantage.

D.J. Richardson has made a three-pointer in 39 straight games.

Illinois is 3 for 11 from the floor (27.3 percent) and 1 for 5 from three. Minnesota is 3 for 10 from the floor and 1 for 3 from long range.

John Groce is off the bench heading into the under-12 timeout leading the cheers, delivering high-fives. He's pumped up.

The Penn State radio crew just showed up. The Nittany Lions and Michigan play the next game. Lots of bright, bright maize t-shirts in the crowd for this one.

Big Ten tournament: No. 8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) —Tipoff (BTN)

Illinois' starting lineup today will be Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu.

I wrote about Abrams and his penchant for playing well in the Chicago area.

A lot of folks have been down on Brandon Paul lately, but he's evolved his game a bit, in my opinion. He's trying to get others involved and he's playing better defensively.

Lots of Illinois fans here. Pretty good showing for Minnesota in the half-full arena here at tipoff.

Is this Tubby Smith's sat game if the Gophers lose? Or will Smith be asked to shake up his staff in order to keep his job? It would be kind of weird if he was asked to fire his son. A first-year AD always makes things uncertain.

Gene Honda is the public address announcer here today. It's a home game for Gene. He's the Blackhawks' PA announcer.

Want to know why John Groce's teams have been so good in March? Illinois hasn't played well the last two games, but he's got them believing they have. This team is as confident right now as it has been in a while. That's half the battle.

Officials today are Bo Boroski, Terry Wymer and D.J. Carstensen.

Big Ten tournament: No. 8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) — 30 minutes before tipoff (BTN)

The doors opened a little while ago and so far there's more orange here than anything else. I saw the Griffey family sprinting to their seats. Tyler said his siblings are on spring break this week, so hisfamily got to Chicago early this week and are making a vacation of it.

Joseph Bertrand joined the Illini on the court after they had started stretching, but before the basketball were released. He's now going through the full warmup and is drilling jumpshots.

Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith is on the floor observing his team's warmups. It's kind of rare for a head coach to come out early. I can only remember seeing John Groce out early a handful of times this season.

Rodney Williams is going though presume drills with the Gophers. He didn't play the last time these teams met up in Minneapolis. He's a difference maker.

"He plays the 4 for them some, he plays the 3 for them some. He's obviously a really talented player, an elite-level athlete," Groce said. "He certainly changes their team so we'll have to keep him off the glass, can't let him make highlight plays in transition. He's very versatile, very good at driving the ball especially lately as we watch him on film. He adds another dimension to their team for sure."

Marcus Fuller of the Pioneer Press told me he doesn't think Tyler Griffey goes off for 16 against the Gophers if WIlliams was in the lineup. He might be right.

D.J. Richardson is wearing a gray t-shirt with the "Toughness and Togetherness" (TNT) logo on it. Hope you've been able to catch those videos that the Illinois production folks have put together. They've been outstanding. It's kind of like a "Journey" geared specifically toward Illinois basketball.

Speaking of "The Journey" the BTN's documentary crew is here shooting everything. They were getting instructions earlier from Scott Chipman of the Big Ten letting them know where they could and could not go. ALmost everything is open to them. Training rooms are one area they're not allowed.

LIke Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, Rodney Williams attempted to make a halfcourt shot before heading into the locker room. He wasn't close on any of his half dozen or so tries.

Lots of Illinois media folks here. Jeremy Werner from ESPNCU Radio is here. Mark Tupper, Herb Gould, Shannon Ryan, Fletcher Page, Taylor Rooks, Rob McColley, Jim Cotter, Max Tane, Ethan Asofsky. Just to name a few. All the local TV stations are here, too. Plenty of Illinois coverage tomorrow.

By the way, Brnadon Paul's brother, Darius, was named Freshman of the Year in the MAC. Bright future for the forward.

Ohio guard D.J. Cooper, a John Groce favorite, was named the Player of the Year in the MAC. Look for the Bobcats to win the MAC tournament and get back to the NCAAs.

Big Ten tournament: No. 8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) — 60 minutes before tipoff (BTN)

Kind of a weird scene here. The Illinois players took the court about an hour and 15 minutes before tipoff and they weren't allowed to touch the basketballs. A Big Ten representative stood guard over the basketballs and wouldn't let the players touch them. Big Ten rules state balls can't come out until 60 minutes before tipoff.

The Illini players executed air jumpers. Strength and conditioning coach Mike Basgier took them through a stretching routine.

Brandon Miller tried to walk onto the court with a Starbucks cup. He was instructed by a conference representative that he had to pour his coffee into a clear plastic cup.

They've got this place on lockdown.

Indiana coaches are also here at courtside to scout this game. The top-seeded Hoosiers play the winner tomorrow morning.

If Illinois is to win today, the Illini will have to play back-to-back games for the first time since winning the Maui Invitational. Illinois fared well in that situation, trouncing USC, Chaminade and Butler en route to the first title at the event in school history. That experience could help Illinois.

"I think it's good in terms of prep time and the turnaround was quick on those games," Groce said. "We don't give the players everything because you've got to be careful when saying you want them to totally play instinctively and not think at all, I don't know how sharp that is. I don't think you want them over thinking, so there's  delicate balance on those quick turnarounds like in Maui. You probably give them a little less and really water it down because you don't have a lot of time. That's a relevant analogy for conference tournament play."

Groce has had success in tournament play as a coach. He led Ohio to two Mid-American Conference tournament titles in four years there. The Bobcats won a game in the NCAA tournament in 2010 and they were within a couple of free throws of advancing to the Elite Eight before losing to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last year.

Groce said he likes his teams to be mentally tight and physically loose. Being around the team this week, that's the sense I get.

"I think they follow the personality of the staff, to be honest. Some guys are built that way. We've always kind of been a staff or organization or team this time of year that err on the side of being aggressive and keeping them mentally and physically fresh and understanding we've been doing this since October so in some parts of the game, you kind of are who you are," he said. "In two days, you're not going to make someone a completely different player or make wholesale changes. You might wrinkle some things. The main thing is being mentally and physically fresh."

I ran into Gophers beat writer Marcus Fuller on the way into the United Center this morning and he tells me Minnesota plays well in tournaments, so they're confident coming in. He's not so sure, basked on how they finished conference play.

By the way, Maverick Morgan's season came to an end last night in the Ohio big school playoffs with Springboro's 52-46 loss to Walnut Hills last night. Walnut Hills' only loss of the season came to West Virginia power Huntington Prep. It was the second win against Springboro this season. The first meeting was a one-point game. Morgan had 19 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks in the loss. He averaged 24.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.

Big Ten tournament: No. 8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) — 90 minutes before tipoff (BTN)

Good morning from the United Center for the start of this year's Big Ten tournament, which has the potential to be one of the more exciting conference tournaments in recent memory. How good is this year's Big Ten field? Michigan, which is ranked sixth in the country, is playing on Day 1 as the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament.

The Illinois players have been so focused on themselves this season, but even they're excited t see how things unfold here in Chicago this weekend.

"It's loaded, man," Tyler Griffey said. "It's gonna be a rough four days, that's for sure."

"It's been chronicled here lately, maybe as good a tournament as we've had top to bottom. It's a fantastic event. We're excited to be in it," coach John Groce said.

The question surrounding Illinois today is the status of Joseph Bertrand. The junior missed the season finale at Ohio State with a shoulder injury and he's been day-to-day this week in practice. Bertrand is expected to be back in the rotation today.

The Illini come into today on the heels of two losses, but neither the coaches or the players seen all that concerned about any carryover from setbacks at Iowa and Ohio State. Groce said over and over how pleased he was with his team's play the second half of the Big Ten season when it went 6-3, starting with a win against No. 1 Indiana on Feb. 7. 

The three losses down the stretch all came on the road against opponents who were a combined 51-5 at home. Three of the losses were courtesy Big Ten champ Indiana. Another one was Ohio State beating Kansas. The Illini haven't been perfect, but they seem to be in a good place.

"In terms of the execution stuff, we can continue to get better. We need some guys to step up and make a few more plays. They can, they've done that and I'm confident they have the capability to do it," Groce said. "Conference tournaments, toughness, players making plays, being adaptable — game times are different — turnarounds are quick so adaptability's really important. Making adjustments in the middle of the game, trying to wrinkle some things, game management stuff is important just to steal a basket or two because everyone knows what you're doing and vice versa."

While Illinois is in a good place, Minnesota is really struggling. The Gophers come in off a loss at Nebraska and a blowout loss at Purdue. Tubby Smith is on the hot seat and he said yesterday his team is still searching for a leader, 31 games into the season. Not a good sign for a team that has struggled to win away from Williams Arena. Minnesota's only Big Ten win on the road came in Champaign, way back in January.

Folks are starting to fill in here. I'm going to hop on the presume show with Loren Tate and Steve Kelly. I'll be back with another update soon.

Northwestern just arrived at the United Center to take part in a shootaround ahead of their game tonight against Iowa. The Wildcats are banged up. Drew Crawford is dragging his arm around and Jared Swopshire has a bionic-looking knee brace on his right leg over his jeans. Wonder if the 'Cats bothered to get a hotel, their stay should be short here.

By the way, Happy Pi Day to all you math nerds out there. I'm sure John Groce (former math teacher) is excited about the day.

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LoyalIllini wrote on March 14, 2013 at 11:03 am

Need Tracy to stop his turnovers and score instead.  Good job Brandon.  Go Illini.

tntsher wrote on March 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

This is what happens to a team that has never developed a knock out punch mentality!! Minn had their shoulders down, body language all but given up. Illini are 1, maybe 2 possesions from put them out, and they get sloppy & lazy and here you are, now they are behind & looking like they are ready to be knocked out.  

Bwp 5P wrote on March 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Good thing the Gophers didn't take care of the ball today!

WHEW!

aaeismacgychel wrote on March 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm

When we were up 12 it was like we were looking for that knockout punch or nail in the coffin three instead of just trying to extend what we've been doing. Tracy Abrams really seemed to let the emotion of the moment get to him and played really poorly when the Illini could've stomped on the Gophers' throat and gone for the kill. I don't think Illinois stepped off the gas to allow Minnesota backj in the game, I actually think it was the exact opposite in them getting way too amped up at having the big lead. That said, yes, if we get a double digit lead, you want to see our Illini punish the opponent like we did in the Maui Invitational against USC and Butler.

aaeismacgychel wrote on March 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Wow, what a fun (and stressful) game to watch. Brandon Paul played absolutely out of his mind today. I'm sure a few people on here will find something he did wrong today to complain about or bring up why he can't get 25pts on 10 of 16 shooting, with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, phenomenal defense, and 0 turnovers every game. Heck, maybe they'll even say he was way too unselfish in the final 8 minutes when everyone else was missing open shots. Or perhaps they'll point to that 1 drive in the 1st half where he shot an airball. But on a day where Tracy Abrams really struggled, and Tyler Griffey couldn't hit his open threes, Brandon Paul just took over and carried Illinois. Great to see and a ton of heart from the Senior playing in his last BTT. Hopefully, everyone shows up tomorrow agaisnt Indiana. What I wouldn't give to see Illinois knock off those floppers and send their embarassing fanbase home with their tails between their legs trying to make up excuses as to why the "elite team" in the B10 still hasn't won a single BTT in 16 years. GO ILLINI! Let's make a fight of this thing now that it's back in its rightful venue of Chicago!

aaeismacgychel wrote on March 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm

And while I'm at it, since we don't get to do it often, boy did those refs help us out today, especially in that 1st half and after that goofy foul call on the Richardson three in the 2nd. Minnesota got called for a couple charges that in 99.9% of the case would go against Illinois as a blocking foul including a HUGE 2nd foul on Mbakwe sending him to the bench for 12 minutes. And considering how often the refs protect opponent star players from picking up fouls when initiating contact, that was unbelievable. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the refs gave us the game, but I will say that refs certainly could have made this victory a heck of a lot harder on us and that's not a normal occurrence in an Illini game. So a big thank you to them. Hopefully we get the same crew tomorrow for the Indiana-Illinois game and that they refuse to protect Zeller and allow us to get physical with him. He absolutely hates contact and disappears if the refs allow the opponent to body up with him every time down the court.

Bwp 5P wrote on March 14, 2013 at 4:03 pm

AMEN.......as a Hard Core Illini Fan living just inside the Indiana border (Covington area)....you can imagine all the smack talking I hear!

If we beat the Whoosiers again tomorrow.......you'll hear me yelling and screaming!

ILLINI04 wrote on March 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Same here,I work with a bunch of IU fans and after that Feb 7th game I have gave them shit since so I hope we pull this one out or else I am taking a month off from work! INGROCEWETRUST