Tate: If it's close, go with Groce
When John Giannini’s La Salle Explorers blew an 18-point halftime lead and rallied to edge Kansas State on Friday with just three second-half field goals, I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like that again.
But this NCAA tournament defies rational reasoning. The lightning that struck in Kansas City was mirrored within minutes in Austin, Texas.
Ahead 37-21 at the break, Illinois was overtaken by a spectacular Colorado surge and yet rallied from a 44-39 deficit to win, 57-49, with just three second-half field goals.
Three baskets. Pinch me. This can’t be real.
The UI’s second NCAA tournament win in seven years was marked by mind-boggling swings ... huge shutout surges that had coaches praising their defensive skills but left Illini supporters wondering where they can muster the points necessary to handle Miami’s ACC champions Sunday.
For extended stretches, UI and Colorado shooters went numb. It is incomprehensible.
— Trailing 17-16, Illinois mixed key steals with a quick burst of treys to outscore the Buffaloes 21-5, holding them scoreless in the last 7:25 while D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams closed the half with arc bombs. Points off turnovers showed Illinois with a midway edge of 15-0.
— Then it was Colorado’s turn. Despite numerous good openings, the Illini began the second half by missing 14 consecutive shots over 11-plus minutes. Colorado fans were whooping it up with a 44-39 lead before Abrams broke the spell with a layup. Suddenly uplifted, the Illini spurted back ahead 48-44 with back-to-back threes by Richardson and Brandon Paul.
— It was then that the Buffaloes plateaued like the Great Plains back home. In the final 9:30, Colorado managed two baskets. Buffaloes star Spencer Dinwiddie garnered his only goal at 48-46, and the other basket came too late at :16. Imagine, one Colorado basket in more than nine minutes, thus allowing the Illini to prevail via 3-for-22 shooting (plus 12 free throws) in the final 20 minutes.
Next game’s a doozy
There are several ways you can look at it. Some will credit the UI defense which, during long stretches at the end of both halves, nullified the Pac-12 outfit. Others will derisively refer to Illinois as the winner of the ugly-girl contest.
From any viewpoint, the Illini offensive performance was inept, the shooters coming in under 36 percent for the fifth straight game. They’ve won twice in that span, defeating Minnesota while shooting 32 percent, and they prevailed again Friday with 30.8 marksmanship.
The 11-game shooting checks in at 37 percent which, of course, can’t go on. Unless the Illini discover the accuracy that marked their successes in November and December, they won’t advance to Washington, D.C., for the next round. Miami, with its ACC Player of the Year Shane Larkin, is simply too good.
But the Illini have defeated two No. 1 seeds, and they have psychology going for them. Amazingly resilient in the clutch, they’ve won every game this season in which they either led late or had a puncher’s chance. However frustrating they may be in the first 35 minutes, they’ve been amazing at crunch time.
If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be wondering what time they’ll play Sunday.
Groce doing it again
For John Groce, the advancement to the round of 32 follows a season in which he led Ohio’s Bobcats past Michigan and South Florida before falling in the Sweet 16 to North Carolina in overtime. His Bobcat returnees were 14-2 in the Mid-American this season but were blown out by Akron (65-46) in the conference tournament and lost to Denver 61-57 in the NIT.
Groce was the difference-maker at Ohio, and he has earned the same status here. He keeps this team headed in the right direction despite repeated setbacks and detours.
On Friday he made light of the UI’s point-producing inefficiencies while lauding “the textbook way we closed.”
Said Groce: “When we were down 44-39, a lot of teams would have cracked. But we continued to defend. We fought back.”
As with many fans, the coach was disturbed by his team’s inclination to slow it down — “I told them, ‘You attack. I’ll decide when it’s time to run clock’ ” — but the Illini appeared to start nursing the clock with 5:03 to go and, amazingly, neither team scored for the next four minutes.
There they were, two mid-level teams battling for their lives, and nobody scored between 5:17 and 1:06, when Paul broke the ice with a string of free throws.
By now, after watching another wild day in which Wisconsin, Kansas State and Georgetown, among others, were handed surprises, you are correct in assuming that the goings-on are beyond my understanding.
But this much I know: Regardless of missed shots, Groce’s Illini will battle right up to their last breath. And just imagine, they could get hot and sustain. We know it’s possible because we saw it against Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State. And we’ve seen lesser teams win the last two days.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.