Good When it Counted

Brandon Paul's supporting cast, absent offensively for most of Thursday's win against Minnesota, showed up when it mattered most.

CHICAGO - Brandon Paul was the man at the heart of the Illinois mob-pile celebration Thursday on the floor of the United Center.

Soon thereafter came the spotlight, the headlines, the tweets of admiration -- the senior guard deserved all that praise and then some after scoring 25 points and hitting a buzzer-beater shot to lead his team past Minnesota 51-49 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

While Paul carried the team for much of the day, his teammates, those guys hugging him and thumping him on the back after his final shot swished through the net, played an integral role in making his moment a winning one.

"Some of our seniors made some big plays down the stretch," Illini coach John Groce said. "They gave us the opportunity, they gave Brandon the opportunity to make that last shot."

It's true that over the course of the first 39 minutes, Paul was essentially the only offensive commodity the Illini had to offer. He scored 23 of the team's 46 points and had nine of the 16 made shots to his credit.

Hovering near a minute to play and the Golden Gophers keying on Paul, the surrounding cast stepped forward to play the role that was so desperately needed.

With 80 seconds remaining, sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu was first on the scene. He rebounded a missed shot taken by Tyler Griffey, missed a put-back, and then gathered the ball again.

He did all this while battling Gophers bruiser Trevor Mbakwe, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds.

"You know it's going to be physically tasking, but I think we handled ourselves pretty well," Egwu said of his clashes throughout the game with Mbakwe.

After the missed lay-up, Egwu whipped a pass to D.J. Richardson, who then had his shot attempt blocked by Rodney Williams.

For the senior Richardson, it was the ninth missed shot of his 10 attempts to that point.

But he recovered the ball and a few seconds later found himself open again. He shot and missed, accounting for miss No. 10.

Fortuantely, Egwu, and eventually Tracy Abrams, kept the play alive tipping the ball and battling for the rebound.

It was Richardson, once again, who would find himself with an open look.

Finally, after all those misses, he connected, knotting the game at 49 and keeping the Illini's hopes to play on alive.

"I'm a shooter, I keep shooting," he said. "That's what coach wants me to do. I didn't think about how I was shooting, I just thought about how it was going in."

The sequence of events that led to Richardson's timely shot was an anxiety-riddled chase for the ball.

"Nnanna tipped it around, Mbakwe tipped it around, Williams tipped it around, nobody could grab it and it was bouncing off the rim," Griffey said. "Nnanna finally grabbed it and got it to D.J."

From there, Illinois needed to get a stop. Out of a timeout with 16 seconds on the clock, Minnesota had trouble inbounding due to Egwu jumping up and down and flailing his arms wildly.

Senior Sam McLaurin was bodied up against Austin Hollins. Just prior to receiving a pass near the sideline, McLaurin said he "chested (Hollins) a little bit like you do in the post and kind of knocked him off balance. He tried to throw it off my leg. When he did that, I kind of did a little hop-scotch move from back in the day."

The end result was Hollins foot touching out of bounds before he could throw the ball off McLaruin.

"Sam does a lot of things that don't show up on the stat sheet," Groce said. "He's been doing a great job on the offensive rebounds. He can guard one through five. He's been doing a good job for us the whole year. That was a big play for us. It set the game up."

From there, Paul took care of the rest, just as he had been doing throughout the entire contest.

"Fortunately, late in the game, we were able to make a few plays late in the game," Groce said.

Fortuantely for Illinois' sake, some of those plays were made by someone other than Paul.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories