It was over when: Brandon Paul capped his brilliant game with a brilliant shot. John Groce said he was 50/50 on whether to call a timeout or let the action play out with the game tied and the Illini with possession with only seconds remaining. In hindsight, he made the right call, as Paul took his time and then used a crossover dribble to create space. He rose up and sank the first buzzer beater of his college career.
Player of the game: Paul. Yeah, no brainer. The senior guard finished with 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting. He also had five rebounds, two steals and two assists. And as he made sure to point out after the game, he didn't have a single turnover.
Minnesota honorable mention: Trevor Mbakwe. The senior forward didn't score in the first half, forced to the bench with two fouls eight minutes into the game. He more than made up for it in the second half, scoring eights points and pulling down seven rebounds. For a stretch midway through the final segment, the Illini didn't seem to have an answer for Mbakwe, who also had a few great rebounding battles with Illini forward Nnanna Egwu.
Don't forget: D.J. Richardson's 3. The senior missed 10 of his first 11 shots, but that didn't cause a moment of hesitation when the senior found himself with an open look with less than a minute to go. He buried his 12th shot attempt to tie the game at 49.
Stat of the game: Turnovers. Minnesota committed 19 turnovers, which helped to level the playing field for an Illini team that struggled to shoot all game. Illinois ended up with 16 more shot attempts than the Gophers, which helped make up for the poor percentages.
Stat of the game 2: Rebounding. A quick glance shows that Minnesota held a healthy margin, 38-26, on the boards. A closer look, though, tells a different story. Illinois actually beat the Gophers in offensive rebounds, 12-11, scoring four more second chance points in the process.
The takeaway: First of all, what a game! And to think, that was the first game of a tournament that figures to provide quite a few more magical moments. Illinois and Minnesota set the bar high. As I noted in my preview of the game, these two teams, although lacking much of anything in common, entered Thursday on essentially the same level. They split the regular season match-ups. Both won eight games in the Big Ten, including wins over Indiana. And they each entered having lost the last two regular season games. This game figured to be a grind. It was. The Illini took advantage of Mbakwe's foul trouble in the first half to build a double-digit lead. The Golden Gophers turned up the defense in the second half, storming back to take the lead. But in games like this, in tournaments like this, players have to make plays. Paul made his share of great plays, including the game-winning shot. But there was so much more to the Illini victory. Egwu had a key offensive rebound that led to Richardson's 3. And Sam McLaurin forced a turnover on the Gophers last possession. Without those plays, Paul's shot would have not been possible. Groce has talked about this team's resiliency -- it was on display in the closing minutes, no doubt. The Illini got the win and will now play against top-seeded Indiana Friday at 11 a.m. After what happened when the two teams met in Champaign, and considering what the Illini weathered against Thursday, who knows what's in store next.