CHAMPAIGN – After the buzzer relieved Illinois in its 72-65 win over Nebraska on Saturday, Brandon Paul needed a second to collect himself.
The emotions of the close game and memories from four years as Assembly Hall overwhelmed the senior and brought him to a crouch at midcourt, shirt over his face.
“I was thinking this went by fast,” the senior said.
Paul was not alone in emotion, though, as fellow seniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey each showed emotion in their own way after the victory. The emotions are not out of place, but given Illinois’ season an even stronger show of emotion would not have been surprising.
This year has been a tough one for Paul and the Illini. After starting the season 12-0 and cracking the top 10, Illinois endured a rough stretch when Big Ten play started, winning just two in nine. The good times would return for the Illini, though, with a win over number one Indiana and the win over Nebraska on Saturday virtually clinching an NCAA tournament berth among the highlights.
Though the home season has come to an end, the work is far from over for the Illini. The task for the team is to continue to hit highs away from the comfortable confines of Assembly Hall. Illinois has two road games left this year before heading to Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament.
Given the competition in their conference this year, anything is possible. Which is exactly how coach John Groce wants his team to think as they head toward this important stretch of the season.
“This league is unbelievable … you can’t look at standings, scores, or the last time you played each other [before a game],” he stated.
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The next two games are a chance for Groce’s gang to better its position in both the conference and national tournaments, but doing so is easier said than done. First, Illinois has to beat Iowa and then come up with another win against No. 15 Ohio State, both on the road.
As he has done all season, Groce is emphasizing taking it one game at a time.
“We have an opportunity, it’s going to be challenging, but we’re going to try to get to [conference win] number nine,” he said. “We’re going to keep grinding and getting better.”
To hear Brandon Paul talk about it, winning number nine or 10 in conference play is entirely possible.
“All season we’ve found a way to grind it out. Once we get going the guys have confidence and the coaches have confidence in us,” Paul said. “It means the world to me, and the rest of the seniors and the team … the most important thing moving forward is we went out with a win; we have two more games, we’ll take it one at a time.”