Illini men’s basketball upsets No. 1 Indiana 74-72 off Griffey buzzer-beater

By Ethan Asofsky

Illini men’s basketball upsets No. 1 Indiana 74-72 off Griffey buzzer-beater

It’s tough to relieve a season of brutal frustrations in .9 seconds.

Somehow, after senior forward Tyler Griffey hit a buzzer-beating layup to defeat No. 1 Indiana 74-72, it happened for the Illini men’s basketball team.

Griffey, who was in the midst of an 0-for-20 slump from 3 and had become somewhat of a punch line as of late, rode atop shoulders on Thursday in Champaign.

Seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, questioned by many for their toughness, buried their faces in their jerseys to hide cheerful tears.

First-year head coach John Groce, who had become an expert on disappointing press conferences over the Illini’s recent dismal stretch, they’d lost six of their last seven games, led the crowd of overjoyed Illini fans in a huddle after they poured from the bleachers onto the court once Griffey’s layup fell through the net.

A season may have turned around in .9 seconds. Not an easy thing to do.

“We ran an out of bounds play — one of our standard ones that we’ve been running since the beginning of the year,” Griffey said. “I didn’t expect … (Cody) Zeller and (Christian) Watford both right in front of me, and I kind of went through them. They both stayed there.”

Illinois was down as much as 14 in the second half Thursday, but Groce’s team fought back with a 12-2 run to close the game, something the Illini have failed at again and again over the last month.

In the end, it was Richardson who came away with a steal with less than eight seconds remaining.

National Defensive Player of the Year candidate Victor Oladipo chased him down the court and swatted the ball out of bounds on Richardson’s layup attempt with less than a second remaining in the game. Then came the inbound. Griffey snuck behind Indiana big men Zeller and Watford, Paul found him on a pass from the baseline, and the rest is history.

But the Illini never would have been in a position to win if it wasn’t for Paul and Richardson, who accounted for 10 of the Illini’s last 12 points.

Assembly Hall realized what could be possible once Richardson hit back-to-back 3’s to draw the Illini within two with 2:04 remaining and then hitting the tying jumper with just over a minute left in regulation.

Oladipo briefly quieted the crowd with a contested layup as the clock ticked down to :50, but the Illini put the ball in the hands of Paul, who carried them through the early part of the season.

After driving the lane and nearly completing a 3-point play, Paul headed to the free-throw line and banked-in the first attempt, rocking the Hall to its core.

“Prayer,” Groce said after the game.

“It left my hand, and I was like, ‘Good Lord,” Paul said. “But it went in and I was like, ‘All right, let me calm down.’ D.J. just told me, ‘You’ve been here before.’ It got me back. If you noticed, I had a lot of fun this game.”

Paul drained the second attempt to  tie the game. The Illini’s final defensive stand ended with the ball in Richardson’s hands, flying down the court with seconds remaining.

Illinois stayed with Indiana through much of the first half until it looked like the wheels had finally fallen off against the nation’s top-ranked team. The Illini had blown strong early first-half efforts just in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan, and Thursday was no different. Indiana headed into the half with a 41-29 lead on the heels of a 22-10 run.

But this time, the Illini stayed even keel.

Despite its best efforts to prod at the lead in the early going of the second half, Illinois never drew the game closer than six until Richardson’s first 3 that started the run with 2:52 remaining in the game.

In the end, it was Illinois’ seniors – Griffey, Richardson and Paul, the faces of the class of 2009 – that gave it its third win over a top-ranked team in the program’s history.

The last time the Illini accomplished the feat was against Wake Forest on Dec. 1, 2004, and Michigan State on Jan. 11, 1979, before then.

“We were basically telling each other, ‘We’re not done yet, we’ve been through a tough stretch,’” Paul said. “The fact that we all contributed, the seniors that came in at the same time, I think it says a lot about our character.”

Paul and Griffey were both in a rut entering Thursday’s game. After much discussion among the two and Richardson about not going down with a fight, Paul texted Griffey on Wednesday with two words: “Make shots.”

Griffey arguably made the biggest shot of his life on Thursday, and now everything’s in play again. Because of those .9 seconds.

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