Illinois' Griffey explains his game-winning basket
CHAMPAIGN – With 0.9 seconds left in the game, Tyler Griffey slipped past his defender and into the lane. It did not seem possible that Tyler Zeller, the preseason National Player of the Year, would let a guy who had scored 12 points already free on such an important inbounds pass, but there he was, alone in the lane.
As the referee’s count drew close to five, Brandon Paul noticed the forward in space under the basket and released his pass. The ball whipped to Griffey, who caught it cleanly and took it up and through the basket – all before the final buzzer sounded.
Somehow, by some crazy lapse of judgment, Illinois had upset the best team in the nation, 74-72. As the court swarmed with crazed Orange Krush members, John Groce collapsed in a heap of emotion.
“In some games we’ve gotten out of character. Today we stuck to what we were supposed to do for 40 minutes and didn’t flinch,” Groce said. “This is a great win for the program.”
“They’re very deserving because they never gave in,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “We didn’t put them away when we had the opportunity, that’s really the bottom line.”
The Illini (16-8, 3-7) were resurgent Thursday night, playing their tightest defensive game in weeks and getting outstanding efforts from the senior trio of D.J. Richardson, Paul and Griffey. Richardson had the game-high, with 23, but it was his eight points in the final three minutes that made the most important shot, Griffey’s buzzer beater, possible.
What facilitated the Illini’s outstanding play, according to Griffey, was the team’s ability to talk to one another and play as a unit.
“Our communication was at an all time high. We were helping each other, picking each other up and I think it helped,” the forward said.
The victory was Illinois’ third win against a No. 1 ranked team in school history, with all three coming in the friendly confines of Assembly Hall, the last on Dec. 1, 2004 in a 91-73 upset of Wake Forest. More recent history, however, was not in the Illini’s favor.
Coming into Thursday’s game, the Illini had won just twice in Big Ten play, and three of their last 11, making the win much sweeter Groce and his team.
“We played with a lot of trust, I thought we were really tough,” he said. “We played the game the right way. Near the end of the game I said regardless of the score I was proud.”
There were signs of cracks in Indiana’s (20-3, 8-1) game early on. After Christian Watford’s three got the game underway, Indiana played much less than their best. The Hoosiers struggled, giving up three unforced turnovers in the first four minutes of play. Illinois was far from perfect in that stretch, but made the most of the turnovers thanks to threes from Paul and Richardson.
Indiana shook off the Illini after the first media timeout, going on a 6-0 run to take a three-point lead. The Illini continued to fight and a pair of fastbreak baskets from Paul and Joseph Bertrand put Illinois in front again.
The game would swing back to Indiana shortly after, the contest was rarely more than a one-possession game for the next four minutes. One of the keys to Illinois’ early success was the team’s double team on Zeller in the lane. The Illini held the big man scoreless until 6:47 left in the first, when he hit a pair of free throws.
Indiana hit a bit a roll after Zeller got on the score sheet, going on a 9-2 run over the next two minutes, grabbing a 28-21 lead with 4:47 to go in the half with their center finding a groove. Over the next two-and-a-half minutes the Hoosiers had a 9-1 run, including a three from Victor Oladipo and a pair of layups from Will Sheehey.
Illinois would make good on free throws in the final minutes of the first half, but Indiana’s lead was secure. The Hoosiers were in front comfortably, 41-29, at intermission.
Coming out of the locker rooms it was Illinois with the hot hand. The Illini started the half on a 10-4 tear capped by a three from Griffey (his first in nine games and 20 attempts) and a steal and layup from Richardson. With 4:15 elapsed in the second half Illinois was within striking distance again, 45-39.
The momentum swing was short-lived however, as Jordan Hulls came out of the timeout and drained a three to extend Indiana's lead. Groce slammed his fist on the scorer’s table in frustration after the shot, clearly wanting more from his team on the defensive end. Including Hulls’ three, Indiana went on a 10-2 run to 12:45, grabbing a 55-41 lead.
Indiana kept their lead around ten points for the next four minutes, but Illinois made some tough shots and hung with the visitors. A dribble-drive from Paul got Illinois within eight points with seven minutes to play, and momentum seemed to be with the hosts.
The Hoosiers matched every Illini shot with one of their own, however. They also seemed to be getting a few favorable calls, including a questionable foul on Nnanna Egwu, his fifth, with five minutes left that got Groce hopping mad.
The Illinois coach’s anger funneled through his players, and with under three minutes to play they mounted a furious comeback. Bertrand came up with a big steal under the defensive glass that set up a three by Richardson, then Paul came up with a steal in the same place that set up another Richardson three. And just like that that Illinois had cut the Hoosiers’ lead to two points, 70-68 with two minutes to play.
Groce had glowing things to say about Richardson’s contributions after the game.
“D.J.’s effort level on defense, the responsibility he has on defense…I thought that he was absolutely terrific. At both ends he battled, he fought, and I was really proud,” he said.
On the next Illini possession, Richardson stepped just inside the arc and buried his shot, tying the game. Oladipo, who had been quiet, made a good move to get to the basket and put Indiana back in front with a layup.
Paul made a pair of free throws at the other end to the game up, but it looked like Indiana would have the ball for the final shot. As Oladipo crossed over half court, Richardson stepped up and swatted the ball away, grabbed it and raced down court. He skied for the go-ahead layup only to have Oladipo come from behind to powerfully swat the shot into the stands. With 0.9 seconds left on the clock, however, Illinois had more than enough time to counter and take the Hoosiers down.
In the final three minutes, Illinois outscored Indiana 13-2 to come away with the breathtaking upset. Griffey finished the game with 14 points and seven rebounds, Richardson scored 23. The Illini limited Indiana’s stars, Zeller and Oladipo to a combined 23 points. Sheehey was the Hoosiers’ leading scorer, picking up 13 points.
The big win was not going to inflate the Illini’s egos, though. Groce said his team was going to get back on the practice court with the same mentality they’ve had all season.
“It’s a great win, but in three days we play in Minneapolis against good Minnesota team…when we wake up tomorrow we’re not getting absorbed by one game, win or lose,” he said.