UI 57, Colorado 49: 'Strange'
AUSTIN, Texas — Tyler Griffey sat tall in his chair at the back of the Illinois locker room with a smile as wide as the Red River. The Illini senior was in a good mood, and it wasn’t because the meatball sandwich he was munching on was particularly tasty.
“It’s just all right,” he said about the main course from his boxed lunch.
On the other side of the locker room, Kevin Berardini and Ibby Djimde burst into laughter watching a YouTube video on Djimde’s iPhone.
Minutes earlier, seventh-seeded Illinois survived to claim a 57-49 win against Colorado in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It wasn’t pretty — Colorado went on a 21-0 run early in the second half to erase Illinois’ 16-point halftime advantage — but it was a win in the postseason.
So the Illini celebrated as such.
“It’s exciting, survive and advance, no matter how you win, just win,” Nnanna Egwu said. “No one cares how you won. If you advance, nobody’s going to care.”
“As long as you find a way to grind it out at the end, which we’ve shown what we can do this season,” said Brandon Paul, who led Illinois with 17 points. “Survive and advance is the name of the game right now. We’ve just got to continue to get better.”
The Illini (23-12) were in such a celebratory mood after they tested the blood pressure of the sizable contingent of their fans who made the trip to the Lone Star State because wins of any kind have been hard to come by for the program in the last six years.
It was the second postseason win for the program in the post-Dee Brown era. The current players are aware they’ve put Illinois in position to reach its first Sweet 16 since the 2005 team reached the national championship game.
“I think they really needed this win,” Egwu (seven points, eight rebounds) said. “We need to establish a foundation for this program going forward. This sets that up pretty well.”
Friday’s game against Colorado (21-12) mirrored Illinois’ season. In jumping to a 37-21 halftime lead, the Illini looked like the team that was 12-0 and jumped to No. 10 in the polls. When Colorado went on its 21-0 run, the Illini looked like the group that lost seven of nine to start the Big Ten season.
In closing the game on a 16-2 run, they looked like the group that closed the Big Ten season with a fury to give themselves this opportunity.
“I thought it was only fitting that the game was maybe about as strange a game in terms of the ebb and flow of the game that I’ve been associated with, that it would be that way with this group,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We have done it the hard way a lot this year.”
The reward for Illinois: a date against second-seeded Miami, which thrashed 15th-seeded Pacific 78-49. Tip is at 7:40 p.m. on TNT.
“We’re gonna go in fully prepared and expecting to win on Sunday,” Griffey said. “They’re a good team; seeing them on TV a couple times, they’re gonna be tough. It’s gonna be a challenge. They’re big and physical, a good team.”