CHICAGO — If the cobblestone bumps knocked you off the Brandon Paul bandwagon, welcome back.
In the closest thing to a one-man show, the Illini senior kept his team alive Thursday for an underdog shot at Big Ten champion Indiana.
It wasn’t simply the game-winning 16-foot fadeaway that felled Minnesota 51-49 in the conference tournament opener at the United Center. Paul was brilliant. He had no miscues while spearheading the UI attack, racking up nearly half the Illini points (25) on 10-for-16 accuracy. He did this after checking in at a subpar 38 percent during the 18-game league season.
In terms of offense, everybody else on John Groce’s team was mediocre. Everybody! And that’s probably giving them too much credit.
Hold on, don’t freak.
They fought hard, particularly on defense. They dove and they hustled, and they held turnovers down to six.
“That was the difference,” Groce said. “Minnesota had 19 turnovers.”
But D.J. Richardson, who tied it with a trey at 49, was 1 for 11 before he shot it. No Paul teammate scored more than six points and, as a seven-man unit, they were 8 for 40 from the field (20 percent). Misfires continue to plague the club, Thursday’s 32.1 mark making it three straight under 40 percent.
But there was a moment when everyone shined. Down 49-46, Paul rebounded a Gopher miss with more than a minute left, and the Illini scrambled like never before. Nnanna Egwu rebounded Tyler Griffey’s miss and failed to tip it in, but he got it back to Richardson, whose trey was blocked by Rodney Williams. DJR recovered the ball, missed again, and was granted yet another opportunity in the scramble. He tied it from the top.
“Coach told me to keep shooting,” Richardson said. “That’s my role on this team. I’ve been through these situations before.”
Then, for the fourth time in the second half, Minnesota mishandled an inbounds situation on the sideline, Sam McLaurin pressuring Austin Hollins to step on the line. Groce weighed the situation and elected to let Paul hold and go one-on-one. His penetrate-and-pop jumper caught net just as the buzzer sounded, marking the fourth time in a 22-11 season that Illinois won with the last shot.
Thanks for the help
All of us tend to linger on these game-ending plays, almost overlooking everything else. We’ll recall the last shots by Richardson (vs. Hawaii), Griffey (vs. Gardner-Webb and Indiana) and Paul for years.
But there was an early aspect Thursday that had Minnesota fans grumbling about coach Tubby Smith. Not that he handled the two-foul situation different than any other coach. But his strategy was clearly a door opener for Illinois. It happened as follows:
Austin Hollins bagged two jumpers as the Gophers shot ahead 7-2, but Hollins and Big Ten rebound leader Trevor Mbakwe were whistled for two early fouls, and Smith brought them to the bench ... for the rest of the half.
Smith likes to sub a lot, and these reserves have been ineffective. On this day they were beyond inept, and the UI’s switching man-to-man defense ate them alive. The Gophers were unable to score, twice running the 35-second clock down.
In a span of 12 minutes, the only Minnesota points came when Joe Coleman found space for a medium jumper. In the meantime, with Paul connecting from long range, the Illini went up 21-9 and reached the midway point ahead 25-16.
Supporters of this strategy will point out that the Gophers rallied in the second half, went ahead 41-36 on Hollins’ trey and 45-41 on Williams’ layup.
My point is this: The Gophers had to dig themselves out of a hole because the hot-shooting Hollins (he had 16 points on five field attempts) and Mbakwe were withheld.
Returning, those two combined for one foul in the second half. So, my feeling is: “Thanks, Tubby. You followed a coaching manual that, in my opinion, should be rewritten.” Every moment Mbakwe was not on the floor was a plus for Illinois.
Keeping their cool
Thursday’s narrow win leaves the Illini 6-1 in games decided by five points or less, and 5-0 in games decided by four.
They’ve been excellent at pulling close games out of the fire, and it has solidified their position in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens Friday.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has the RPI and strength of schedule to be selected Sunday even as Smith said: “We’ll be wondering and hoping ... sweating it out.” They have dropped 11 of their last 16 games.
Groce gave appropriate credit to the Illini defense, which (with the help of Smith’s strategy) held an opponent under 50 points for the second time this season. Actually, the UI defense was sound even as Minnesota rallied in the second half, the Gophers catching up by threes — two bombs by Austin Hollins and two long ones by Andre Hollins around a three-point play by Andre Ingram.
Perhaps the Gophers became cautious after slipping ahead — teams tend to do that — because they had no more treys in the last 13 minutes. So, as happens, the trailers (Illini) became the aggressors down the stretch, and that was particularly true during the multi-possession scramble that tied it at 49.
Through the ups and downs, Groce has remained upbeat, calling on the Illini to “keep shooting” even as they repeatedly misfired.
“We’re able to make some of these big plays because our mind is right,” he said.
It wasn’t pretty, but it beats the alternative.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.