AUSTIN, Texas — Just like he did after the Senior Day win against Nebraska, Brandon Paul kneeled on the court Sunday night at Texas’ Erwin Center, head buried in his jersey wiping away tears. The moment three weeks ago was celebratory.
After his three-pointer in the closing seconds of a 63-59 loss to second-seeded Miami bounced off the rim, Paul collapsed to the floor sobbing before Joseph Bertrand came to offer comfort.
“When the clock hit zero, it hit me faster than I thought it would,” said Paul, fighting back tears after the game. “The last game of my college career, last time stepping on court with guys I came in with and the rest of the guys on my team as well as the coaching staff.”
Paul’s career as well as those of D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey (12 points, seven rebounds), Sam McLaurin and Kevin Berardini came to an end on a stage no one imagined they could reach after the disaster that was the 2011-12 season.
With first-year coach John Groce running the show, Illinois was a couple of shots and maybe a call or two away from reaching the program’s first Sweet 16 since the 2005 team lost in the national title game.
“It was a heavyweight boxing match out there,” Groce said. “It was a battle.”
Inside a somber Illinois postgame locker room, the tears flowed and disappointment was evident in the players’ voices after the stinging loss.
“I feel blessed to have coached this group,” Groce said.
The Illini looked to be in prime position to advance to the East Regional semifinal in Washington, D.C. after a dunk by Paul (18 points) provided momentum late in the second half and a Tracy Abrams (eight points) free throw made it 55-54 with 1:24 remaining.
But Naismith Award finalist Shane Larkin (17 points) drilled a three-pointer with a minute left and a questionable out-of-bounds call that went against the Illini in the final minute sealed Miami’s ticket to the nation’s capital.
“You saw the same video I did,” Groce said of the call. “Those guys (officials) did a good job though, they did. It’s a hard game to officiate, both teams played physical, both desiring the same thing, 50-50 calls are hard sometimes. That’s how he saw it live speed. We respect what they do.”
Groce said he will forever have a soft spot for the senior class for helping lay the foundation for an Illinois program he’s working to build.
“The seniors led us well all year, they never gave up and kept battling to the end,” said sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“The worst part for me, we don’t get to go to practice on Monday and Tuesday. That’s the part that’s hardest to swallow,” Groce said. “They’re high-character guys. I loved being around them from Day 1 and I’m forever grateful for that. They’ve represented the University of Illinois well and I’m proud of them.”