CHICAGO — In Dustin Ford’s office Monday afternoon, the Illini assistant coach and special assistant Brandon Miller watched film of Illinois’ upset of then-No. 1 Indiana from Feb. 7.
Part of the reasoning was to get some good vibes flowing again after dropping the last two games of the regular season.
“I feel good after seeing that,” Miller said, as the monitor showed the Orange Krush and Illinois players celebrating on the Assembly Hall floor.
The primary reason for re-watching that 74-72 victory was in preparation for a rematch with the Hoosiers should the Illini get by Minnesota in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday at the United Center.
They did that, thanks to the heroics of Brandon Paul, who dropped 25 points against the Gophers (20-12) including a game-winning jumper at the buzzer that sent Illinois (22-11) to a 51-49 win in the tournament’s opening game.
It was the fourth win at the horn for the Illini this season. D.J. Richardson hit a three-pointer from the corner in the overtime win at Hawaii, and Tyler Griffey came up big against Gardner-Webb and Indiana.
“D.J. and I welcomed him to the club,” Griffey said. “We rode him today. He made some big plays, big-time shots down the stretch that gave us a chance in the first place. As soon as he let it go, I knew it was good.”
Paul’s all-around effort (five rebounds, two steals, no turnovers) was necessary on a day when his teammates struggled. No other Illini scored more than six points.
But despite starting 1 for 11 from the floor, Richardson drilled a three-pointer in the final minute to tie the game at 49, and Sam McLaurin forced a Minnesota turnover with 14 seconds remaining to set the stage for Paul’s game-winner.
“I didn’t want to lose; we worked too hard,” Paul said. “This team has too much character, and the coaching staff, they got us right for this one, as they do for all the games.”
The coaching staff had been hard at work getting the Illini ready for Friday’s tilt against top-seeded Big Ten champion Indiana (26-5).
Ford prepared the scouting report and had it ready for coach John Groce when the Illini got back to their hotel shortly after Thursday’s win.
“I’ve watched them all week, as much as I could from our first game. We’ll have stuff in place,” Ford said. “It’s hard because it’s short prep, and you don’t want to overload your guys. We’ll pick and choose what we give them, and hopefully it’ll be enough.”
Groce said he hadn’t given the Hoosiers any thought ahead of Thursday’s game against Minnesota, and he won’t look ahead to a potential matchup against Michigan or Wisconsin in the semifinals.
“The total focus was on today’s game,” he said. “We’ve taken it one game at a time; we have not tried to advance our thought any further than that.”
Richardson said, “I’m ready to keep playing in this tournament. We’re going to treat Indiana like we treat the rest of the teams in the Big Ten, take it one game at a time.”