BY CHAD DARE
This time around there were no late-game heroics.
They were not needed as top-seeded Indiana, rated No. 3 in the latest Associated Press Top-25 poll, did just about anything and everything the Hoosiers wanted to do on Friday in a 80-64 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
“We’re excited about the win,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “We thought we defended at a very high level to hold to hold a really good shooting team, and a high-scoring team when they get their offense rolling the way they’re capable of, to hold them down in this game.
“Our whole focus was getting ready to play our best basketball today and hopefully, we play even better basketball tomorrow.”
It didn’t take very long to see that the Hoosiers, who improve to 27-5, were playing close to their best basketball on Friday.
Indiana opened the contest with a 22-7 run with 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller scoring eight of his game-high 24 during that stretch and the Zeller, a first-team all-Big Ten selection, capped that stretch with a steal and two-handed slam.
“He ran hard in transition, got some easy baskets,” said Illinois center Nnanna Egwu. “ He puts himself in the best possible position to score. I feel if we couldn’t have cut those easy baskets down and made him work for those points, we would have been in a better position to win this game.
“But, he ran hard, played hard, and he created those opportunities for himself.”
That lead for Indiana was never really challenged.
Illinois, which falls to 22-12, did get as close as 60-52 on a two free-throws by D.J. Richardson with 8 minutes, 17 seconds left. To the fans wearing the Orange and Blue, they probably started having thoughts of Feb. 6 when the Illini rallied to beat the Hoosiers, rated No. 1 at the time, 74-72 on a last-second layup by Tyler Griffey.
“At halftime, we were down 14 (35-21) and in the first game, were down 12 at half,” Griffey said. “So we knew it was possible and we knew we had it in us to comeback on this team.”
But Illinois wasn’t the only team that remembered the only regular-season meeting between the Big Ten Rivals.
Indiana destroyed any thoughts of a comeback as the Hoosiers scored the game’s next five points and Victor Oladipo’s 360-degree slam dunk with 1:37 left sealed the victory.
“We learned from that game,” Indiana’s Christian Watford said. “We looked at the film last night and we looked at some other things. We know we shouldn’t have done some things at the end of that game and we let one get away.
“We knew what they do and we kept grinding it out and kept playing until the final buzzer.”
Indiana also secured its spot in the semifinals by making 11-of-12 free throws in the final 10 minutes, and for the game, the Hoosiers were 21-of-24 at the charity stripe, while the Illini were also a very impressive 19-of-21.
“We closed the game out in the last seven minutes,” Crean said. “We not only defended pretty well, but we scored it very well. That’s the key.
And most important, the Hoosiers did that in both halves on Friday. The same could be said for Illinois.
“I think it was a tale of two halves,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought our defense was really, really good in the first half. In fact, if it wasn’t good, I don’t know … if we would have been down only 14 at halftime. Had our guys not shown the resiliency and toughness that they did in the first half, we would have been down a lot more.
“In the second half, it flipped. I thought our offense was really good and defensively, we weren’t able to stop them. I thought they got too many layups and baskets in transition.
“When you play Indiana, you have to be good in both offense and defense in both halves.”
Brandon Paul, the star of Thursday’s win over Minnesota, was held to 16 points but the senior guard scored 11 of those at the free-throw line. Paul was a dismal 2-of-13 from the field, including making just 1-of-6 from 3-point range.
“They get into you,” said Paul, who was being guarded by Oladipo, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. “Obviously Oladipo is a great defender. They play hard. They’re scrappy. That’s something I got to get better at. We missed some shots, but at the same time I was trying to get to the free-throw line. And I think I did that well tonight.
“But some shots just got to fall. They fell yesterday, they didn’t fall tonight. That’s just something that happens.”
And according to senior guard D.J. Richardson, who was 2-for-10 from the field, not getting shots to fall was the biggest problem for the Illinois offense.
“I missed some shots, Brandon missed some shots and Nnanna missed some shots. Tracy (Abrams) did a good job of getting us the ball in positions to score, we just didn’t make the shots,” Richardson said. “We did a good job on our plays, but we missed some shots today that we are capable of making.”
And while Abrams and Paul shared team-high scoring honors with 16 each, the three Illinois guards managed just five assists to six turnovers. Meanwhile, Indiana’s Jordan Hulls, who averages scoring 10.5 points per game, was 0-for-5 from the field and had just two points, but the 6-foot senior guard from Bloomington South had a game-high seven assists and no turnovers.
“Jordan also had a great defensive game, so he really helped us win,” said Oladipo. “He’s one of our leaders, he’s one of our seniors, and he’s very capable of changing the game as well with points.
“When we can win and he only has what? Two points and seven assists? It just shows how deep our team is.”
Indiana finished with five guys in double figures. After Zeller’s 24 came Watford with 15, Oladipo and Yogi Ferrell finished with 12 and Will Sheehey came off the bench to score 11 on 4-of-4 shooting.
The Hoosiers also got a big lift of their bench from sophomore guard Remy Abell, who had five points on 2-of-4 shooting and he also had three rebounds and two assists.
“I thought Abell gave them positive contributions, made a couple jumpers, which he typically doesn’t do that,” Groce said. “Those are big plays.”
Danville Area Community College sophomore guard Andrew Mitchell is Abell’s cousin, and Abell was Mitchell’s representative at DACC’s final home game against Lincoln Land. Mitchell and DACC’s Stephanie Lord were at Friday’s contest at the United Center, seated right behind the Illinois band.
While Indiana advances on to play Wisconsin, a 68-59 winner over Michigan, in a semifinal contest on Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini will await a postseason berth on Sunday.
It appears to almost everyone that Illinois will be in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three years, but Griffey, a senior, wants to wait for the official announcement on Sunday.
“We don’t know yet,” he said. “But we’re confident that we still have basketball left, no matter where it’s at or who we are playing.’