It was a special night for former Illinois coach Lou Henson. A banner in his honor was hoisted to the rafters of the Assembly Hall on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It was a well-deserved tribute to one of the Illini's best coaches, but he gladly shared the stage with a new Illini hero.
Brandon Paul transformed into a superhero before Illini eyes. Playing against highly ranked Ohio State, he overcame a cluster of early turnovers to score 43 points, including the last 15 of the game, to help the Illini achieve a 79-74 upset win that will look outstanding on their NCAA resume.
Who would have guessed it? Ohio State was the odds-on favorite to win the Big 10 this year, and it still may. But Illinois battled the Buckeyes shot for shot, pulling away at the end for a satisfying triumph. And who would have thought Paul, struggling all season long offensively, would have the third best scoring output in Illini history?
Paul thinks a message from coach Bruce Weber may have set the tone for his tremendous night.
"My teammates believed in me, my coaches believed in me. I just came out and played. Coach Weber texted me before the game. He said, 'Be special tonight. This is your time.' My teammates had faith, and we got the win."
Paul has struggled offensively this whole season despite playing well in other areas. His confidence was wavering. Weber explained his motivation for the text while adding a humorous note.
"I thought, give him some encouragement. Sometimes maybe you can convince somebody that they'll be okay. It was a good text I guess because he said, 'Yes sir.' He listened to me. It's the first time since he's been here he actually obeyed me."
Paul hit 11 of 15 shots, including a phenomenal 8 of 10 from the arc. He hit 13 of 15 free throws, all but his first and last. He also grabbed 8 rebounds and had four big blocks, including a back-breaker on Buckeye star Jared Sullinger with thirty seconds to play.
He dished out two assists and had a couple steals. He had 8 on the MATTO play-hard chart. He also played outstanding defense on William Buford. Only his 7 turnovers marred an otherwise sensational performance.
"It was unbelievable," Meyers Leonard added. "Brandon most definitely put on a show tonight. We all had faith in him. He shot the ball unbelievably. He played defense, and that was the main part; Buford's a great scorer. He had some key blocks in transition. He put in an unbelievable effort, and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Paul hit a falling-away, highly contested three with the shot clock running out to give the Illini a 74-70 lead. He might not hit another shot with that degree of difficulty all season, and it tied him for the all-time school record for threes in a game. He was so hot from the field, he was asked if he began to laugh at his good fortune.
"I was laughing a couple of times. But after the first 2, 3 or 4 threes, I decided I would just keep shooting. I've been down on myself the last two or three games because they haven't been going in. I just kept a level head and kept shooting. It definitely worked out this game."
OSU coach Thad Matta tipped his hat to Paul afterward.
"Without a doubt, Brandon Paul had one of the best Big 10 performances I've seen in my 8 years here. You've got to give him credit; he made some incredible plays."
Weber was happiest with the upset victory, giving the Illini an impressive 15-3 record so far this season. But he reserved special comments for Lou Henson as well.
"It's a special night in many ways. One for Coach Henson being honored on his 80th birthday. If Brandon makes that last free throw, it would have been fitting to have 80 points on his 80th birthday, and a big win. So I'm glad we were able to win a game, and he can have a great feeling on the day he was honored. That was really positive."
Paul wasn't the only vital cog in the Illini game plan. Meyers Leonard battled Sullinger tooth and nail throughout. He was outscored 21 to 14, but they each had five rebounds. Leonard feels he held his own against a possible NBA lottery pick.
"It was a big-time matchup. They let us go one-on-one. As far as post moves, I thought I was right there with him.
"I thought I did a pretty good job against him. I knew I had to use my feet and fight around him. If he gets his butt on you, it's pretty much over with. He's so big and so strong. And not only that, he's skilled. He's an unbelievable player. It was a tough night guarding him, but I thought I did a fairly good job."
Weber praised Leonard and his other starters, all of whom played at least 32 minutes.
"I thought Meyers did a good job against Sullinger, a tough matchup. Joe (Bertrand) was good early, kept us in there. He got tired; it was hard for him to guard Deshaun Thomas. Tracy (Abrams), after he settled down, I thought he did a good job."
D.J. Richardson hit one of the biggest shots of the night, a three after the Buckeyes had gone up 64-61. That was quite an accomplishment considering his painful wrist.
"D.J. hit a big three out of the timeout. We ran a little quickie for him. Two days ago D.J. couldn't bend the wrist. He showed some toughness and maturity, and some grit."
Richardson and Bertrand each scored 10 points on the night. Richardson had one of his best playmaking games, handing out four assists. Bertrand grabbed 7 big boards. Abrams had two points and two assists. No bench player scored for the Illini.
A major aspect of the win was sensational shooting by the Illini. They hit 60% of their shots to keep themselves in the game even after OSU went up 11 early in the second half. This helped counterbalance a ten point differential the Buckeyes enjoyed on points following turnovers.
Leonard says this Illinois team is different than last year. He summed up the game and what it means.
"It's a huge win for us. We slipped up at Purdue, didn't play with any emotion. We've had a couple other rough games., crowd booing us. We keep fighting. it's a different team, and we listen to Coach. We fight for each other. This is definitely a big confidence-booster."
Weber also praised the crowd. It wasn't a sellout since students are still on break, but the support was loud and persistent. Only the post game rush-the-floor gambit needed work.
"I thought the crowd was great. They got into it without the students. That was a weak running out on the court, I'll tell you that. Forty-five year olds are not like the students running out there."
The Illini now get to enjoy a badly needed 8 day break before resuming Big 10 wars at Penn State. Weber will give his troops a couple days off over the weekend before resuming preparations for the Nittany Lions.
"Right now we can enjoy it and watch some other teams play for a couple days."