BY CHAD DARE
There wasn’t a single person in the United Center on Thursday that didn’t know Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul was going to the final shot for the Fighting Illini.
With Illinois and Minnesota tied 49-49 with 15 seconds remaining in the Big Ten Conference’s tournament opener, Paul went 1-on-1 with Minnesota’s Austin Hollins, burying a 17-foot jumper at the buzzer giving the Illini a 51-49 victory.
“Midway through the second half, we realized it was Brandon’s morning or Brandon’s game. We tried to get him the ball as much as we could and it worked out for us,” said Illinois senior Tyler Griffey. “He was calling for it. We knew he was going to take it.
“From my vantage point on the bench, I knew it was going to in when he released it. I had a good angle.”
Paul, who scored 25 of his team’s 51 points, made the game-winning pass on the last buzzer beater for Illinois, the win over then-No. 1 Indiana, but this time around there was no passing, especially when you consider that Paul was 10-of-16 from the field and the rest of his teammates were 8-of-40.
“In those situations you got to see what the defense gives you,” he said. “ I’ve been in those situations before where the defense is flexing me and I hit an open jumper to win the game and stuff like that.
“But basically you let them come out, I saw I had some space, so I let the shot go with the buzzer winding down.”
And that’s the exact play his coach wanted to run. Illinois could have called a timeout, but Groce had complete confidence in his senior from Gurnee Warren.
“Well, Dustin (Ford) and I were talking about it there on the bench. I was about 50/50, to be honest, whether I was going to call one or not,” Groce said. “But at the end of the day, I kind of knew what I wanted to go with there. And so we, I didn’t want to give them a chance really to make any type of defensive adjustment, we just decided to ride with it.
“The big thing that we were trying to do there is make sure he didn’t go before five and seven on the game clock. We wanted to make sure that we got the last shot and worst case scenario, we would go to overtime. Obviously he made a big play.”
The two plays before the Paul game-winner were just as big for Illinois, which improves to 22-11 overall with the victory and the Illini advances into Friday’s quarterfinals where they will play the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers, the outright champions of the Big Ten regular season.
Senior D.J. Richardson buried a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left tying the game at 49-49 on a possession where Illinois had five attempts at the basket, thanks to offensive rebounds from Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams.
“On our last two offensive possessions we found a way,” said Groce. “It’s fitting that two seniors in Brandon and D.J. made those plays.
“But the offensive rebound effort was also tremendous by our guys on the possession that led to D.J.’s 3. It put us in a position where we had a chance to win the game.”
And considering that Richardson had missed nine consecutive shots didn’t deter the guard from Peoria.
“My teammates found me. I kept shooting. I’m a shooter, I keep shooting. That’s what coach wants me to do. I didn’t think about how I was shooting, I just thought about how it was going to fall. I knew it was a big shot for us,” said Richardson, who finished with six points on 2-of-12 shooting. “I’ve been in situations like that my whole career. I don’t let it affect me. I’m going to keep shooting and make plays.
“I did a good job on defense. I didn’t let that affect me on defense and I made some good plays on defense. But I’m going to keep shooting no matter what. That’s my role for the team. And it worked out that I made a big shot for us.”
In between those two big shots for Illinois was a big defensive play by senior Sam McLaurin, who forced Minnesota’s Austin Hollins into a turnover with 15 seconds left.
“Sam does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Richardson said. “He’s been doing a great job on the offensive rebounds. He can guard one through five. He’s been doing a good job for us the whole year.
That was a big play for us. It set the game up.
“Some of our seniors made some big plays down the stretch. They gave us the opportunity to win. They gave Brandon the opportunity to make that last shot. So Sam made a big play for us also on the defensive end as well.”
Minnesota, which falls to 20-12, was attempting to inbound the ball on the sideline when McLaurin stepped up with his pivotal defensive play.
“Coach wanted us to switch all the ball screens no matter what. We wanted to try to make it tough on them,” McLaurin said. “At the end of the play, (Trevor) Mbakwe set a screen for (Austin) Hollins. Me and Brandon switched that screen. I tried to deny Hollins a little bit, but once he caught the ball. I tried to do one of my moves that I do in the post.
“You pull your hands back and chest him a little bit. It knocked off-balance, he went back on heels, I knew he was going throw it off my legs. I jumped back, but he was already out of bounds.”
Austin Hollins, who had a team-high 16 points, committed just two of the Golden Gophers 19 turnovers in the contest and those miscues led to 21 points for the Illini.
“I thought maybe I got pushed a little bit, but I can’t, I can’t say that that caused anything,” Austin Hollins said. “The game went the way it did. It was out of my hands what happened the rest of the way. Whether they make the call or didn’t.”
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said that his team had plenty of opportunities before those final possessions.
“We were hoping to get the ball into the hands of a better shooter and Trevor was screening across for him, they took away that pass,” Smith said. “They did a good job of putting a big guy on the ball there. We also had some other people coming back to the ball and that didn’t happen, but you’ve got to be strong with the ball.
“I haven’t seen the replay, but obviously when you come to the ball, you want to come and do a jump shot and be strong with it, be physical. It didn’t happen. We turned it over 19 times and we just had a real issue with taking care of the basketball.”