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Illinois shocks No. 1 Hoosiers!

By Jeff Mayfield

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[February 08, 2013]  CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- The Illinois Fighting Illini won a thrilling 74-72 Big Ten contest over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night on a buzzer-beater by the beleaguered Tyler Griffey.

A good sports writer would be able to break down the improbable victory over the Hoosiers. Since you are stuck with me, and I was at the game and still have no idea what happened... you're going to have to bear with me a little bit.

This game had a Hoosier victory written all over it. The Illini hung tough with them for most of the first half until Indiana started converting 3-pointers seemingly every trip down the court. Illinois had a decent game plan on defending Indiana's All-World center Cody Zeller, and that kept the game from getting out of hand. The Illini defense limited Zeller to only six shot attempts for the entire game! And they held Indiana to just 44 percent shooting in the second half. Illinois' defense forced IU into 14 turnovers on the night.

Illinois also hung tough on the boards, an area I thought Indiana might exploit going into the game. The final tally was 26-30, with IU holding a slight edge, but the Illini's relentless pursuit of the basketball kept that battle close enough to give Illinois enough chances to find a way. But it sure didn't seem like there was going to be much of a way as the Illini trailed 29-41 at halftime. By then it appeared as if IU had figured the Illini out and were in the process of pulling away.

However, several things that happened in the second half made you think Illinois might have a chance.

First, there was head coach John Groce. As frustrated as he was from time to time, including one incident where he called timeout after just drawing up a play resulting in at least two players going to the wrong spots, he never wavered. I wasn't seeing much hope, sitting a couple of rows behind him, but he was immersed in it, coaching it like it was a one-point game. Sadly, Indiana had been maintaining an eight-, 10-, 12-point lead. But Groce never succumbed to the frustration.

Then there was D.J. Richardson. His face was plastered on the game program/poster, and that turned out to be a good omen! He finished the night with a game-high 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including 4 of 8 from downtown... How big was that? I'll tell you how big. In the final minutes of the game he hit not one but two huge 3s AND a long step-back deuce that brought Illinois all the way back, or at least within striking distance. I saw it but I still can't believe it, and I'm struggling to figure out how it all happened, much less communicate it to you.

One way previously mentioned was the outstanding coaching of Groce. Illinois scored on a variety of inbounds plays, of all things, where the open man sprang open as a result of setting multiple picks, flashing to the ball and getting good shots in rhythm. That would prove to be a big part of the final scene and the final outcome.

Another big aspect of the Illini's outstanding upset was the return of Tyler Griffey. No, he hasn't been gone, just mired in a slump. And while that is somewhat of an understatement, is there a better game to come out against than the one with Indiana? I think not. His 14 points and eight rebounds were critical to the Illini's magnificent effort. Two of his buckets were 3s, and the roof was raised when he dropped those in. That may be the only thing I'd praise our crowd about.

Furthermore, I'd like to see an investigation into the number of our patrons who either gave away or sold their tickets to our opponents for the contest. I have been following the Orange and Blue only since the '70s, but I have never seen that many opposing fans in our building ever. It was sad, it was depressing, and more than one observer was not very happy about it. Listen to the tape and you will hear a good discussion about it between the "Voice of the Illini," Brian Barnhart, and the analyst, Illini great Jerry Hester. I couldn't agree more with my colleagues. That has to stop and should never be allowed to happen again.

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Anyway, back to Griffey. Somehow the stage was set for his coming-out party to finish with crescendo. Richardson and Paul, who finished with 21 points of his own, were somehow keeping us in the game. But Indiana's balanced scoring of Zeller with 14, Watford with 12 and Hulls with 11, not to mention Sheehey's 13 and Oladipo's nine, had seemingly put the game out of reach. Perhaps Indiana missed a chance to put the Illini away. They would rue that mistake.

But as I mentioned previously, Illinois' Richardson was a one-man wrecking crew in the final minutes. His eight-point outburst in just three or four possessions and two big free throws by Paul gave the good guys a chance. Oladipo tried to keep his guys No. 1 by attacking the rim, converting and giving the Hoosiers a brief two-point lead prior to Paul's charity tosses. When Paul tied the game, Oladipo tried once more to take the rock to the rack. Somehow fate stepped in. Somehow the ball just squirted free. Richardson gathered it and headed to the other end. Oladipo didn't hesitate, raced back and swatted D.J's would-be game winner into the pep band.

At that point Illinois had no timeouts left. Coach Crean said he didn't want to call one of his two remaining timeouts because he didn't want to give the Illini a chance to set up a game-winning lob. In retrospect, maybe he should have. Even though I have heard some interviews saying that we ran a set inbounds play on the final shot, I'm still not convinced. With 0.9 seconds left on the clock, you are probably just going to have to get it and fire up a desperation 3 or throw it in the paint and hope for a tip-in.

Instead, Illinois ran what kids used to call a Chinese fire drill. The Illini had people running in all different directions. Paul faked a pass, I think to maybe D.J., right in front of him in the corner. I think he looked at maybe Joe Bertrand out top. When he faked the dive to Richardson, Griffey came over and there were like five players in a scrum. It looked like the heyday of roller derby action. With all that misdirection going on, it sucked Indiana into chasing all of our players around. Griffey somehow got free and looked like he was shot out of a cannon, running toward the hoop. In fact, I've never seen him move that fast. Indiana hasn't either, because no one could catch him on his way to glory.

Brandon Paul was the trigger man standing with the ball out of bounds. Paul has struggled with his passing some the last few seasons, so I will admit, I was more than a little bit nervous with the ball in his hands. But his fakes, his eye contact and his PERFECT bounce pass to Griffey made one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. Paul couldn't believe how open he was. Griffey himself couldn't believe how open he was. But who cares? We won... 74-72... poetic justice and a thing of beauty. Why not?


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AP report: Illini buzzer-beater upsets No. 1 Hoosiers 74-72


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