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
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.
[to top of second column]
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?
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
Respond to the writer at
Illini buzzer-beater upsets No. 1