Illinois seniors pick perfect time to break slump

Illinois' Griffey explains his game-winning basket

Illinois seniors pick perfect time to break slump
February 7, 2013, 11:00 pm
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(Credit: USA Today Sports Images)
Chris Davies

CHAMPAIGN – As Tyler Griffey answered questions in the Assembly Hall media room after Illinois’ 74-72 upset of Indiana on Thursday night, he simply could not stop smiling—which is a big change for the 6’9” senior.

In Illinois’ previous nine games, Griffey had not been a particularly happy man. Over that span he had not scored more than eight points and missed 22 consecutive three-point shot attempts, and lost his starting spot and playing time in the process. On Thursday, however, those struggles were the last thing on his mind.

“You could tell he was locked in early, just how he rebounded the ball…his focus was as good as I’ve seen it,” said head coach John Groce about the forward after the game.

With his focus on track, Griffey came up with a big night against top-ranked Indiana. He scored 14 points, including two threes and the game-winning layup, and grabbed eight rebounds. The breakout night was a huge relief for him.

“[When I hit that three] I said to myself, ‘Finally,’” Griffey joked after the game. “It was definitely important to hit inside shots too. Tracy and Brandon did a good job getting me looks.”

Griffey’s big game came on the back of a long day that included an 8 a.m. shoot-around and four hours of classes. It is only a part of the commitment he has made to the Illini, however. The senior described his recent practices to reporters after the game, explaining that he has taken so many shots that he has had to ice his wrist.

That work ethic has not gone unnoticed by coaches or fellow players, and Griffey’s fellow seniors followed his lead against the Hoosiers. Brandon Paul, in particular, came up big for the Illini on Thursday. The guard, just one game removed from also being removed from the starting lineup, played one of his best games of the year.

Paul scored 23 and had three steals in the upset, and said that the big difference for him was that the game was enjoyable again.
“I had a lot of fun this game. That’s one thing I don’t think I’ve had recently,” Paul said.

That enjoyment, by Groce’s estimation, comes from the fact that the Illini had an outstanding mindset prior to the game.
“Our attitude was off the charts the last few days,” he said.

Part of that attitude comes from the other senior on the floor for Illinois, D.J. Richardson. Groce routinely praises Richardson for his effort and outlook, and said his team’s energy flowed through the guard from Peoria, who scored 21 points Thursday night, including eight in the final three minutes.

Perhaps the best news for Illini fans, however, is that these seniors are determined to do anything they can to help the team. Especially when they are not scoring as easily as they did against Indiana.

“Going to bed last night, around 11 or 11:30, I got a text from Brandon talking about how we aren’t making a lot of shots and we gotta find a way to contribute,” Griffey said.

There’s no guarantee that this win is a harbinger of better things to come for the Illini, as their last big win (an upset of fifth-ranked Ohio State on Jan. 5) was followed by a run of three lackluster losses. But if the team can look to their seniors to pull them through the hard times, as they did in the comeback win over Indiana, then they could achieve more great things this season

“We’ve stuck together through this. No one’s been pointing fingers through the rough stretch we’ve had,” he said.

The next test for Illinois comes Sunday, at No. 18 Minnesota. A win there could go a long way toward healing the wounds these Illini teammates share.