Tough to the End

Resiliency and toughness defined Illinois' senior-driven team all season long.

AUSTIN, Texas - Standing at the free throw line with time fading, in the game and for their careers, D.J. Richardson made eye contact with Brandon Paul.

Neither said a word, instead both gave confident nods of the head.

It was a silent agreement to fight to the end, a deal kept firm by the rest of the Illinois team, falling short of Miami 63-59 Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

"When the clock hit zero it kind of just hit me faster than I thought it would that that was the last game of my college career," said Paul, who led the Illini with 18 points.

It wasn't supposed to be close. No. 2 seed Miami, led by star Shane Larkin, was supposed to parade on to the Sweet Sixteen, the Illini just a passer-by on the route to the bigger and better yet to come.

But this Illini team has been resilient all season. It's been tough, too. And Paul and Richardson weren't going to end their run quietly, not after a four-year run together that saw plenty of ups and downs.

"It was a battle. It was like a heavyweight boxing match out there," Illinois coach John Groce said.

What unfolded wasn't for fans of finesse. Both teams shot poorly for long stretches. Battles in the paint for rebounds and position looked excruciating. And forget easy buckets or layups in transition – every shot was contested, every point earned. The game went the opposite way of conventional belief -- that Miami was too talented and too deep for Illinois to seriously threaten it -- but a close contest was exactly what Groce prepared his team for.

"I asked them to play with courage," he said. "They played with a high level of courage. I thought their poise was tremendous."

For Illinois, the seniors showed the way.

Paul hit back-to-back 3s and had a nasty dunk on his way to scoring 10 pivotal points in the second half. Tyler Griffey sank 4 of 6 three-point attempts, scoring 12 points off the bench. McLaurin secured five rebounds and had a key block on Larkin late in the game. Richardson missed 10 of his 11 shots but put forth his usual work on the defensive end, chasing Larkin and guard Durand Scott around all night long. Routinely saying of the seniors throughout the season that it was, "their team" Groce once again cited their initiative to lead by example.

"They put their heart and soul and their mind into this from day one and kind of had a cause and they battled every day to put themselves in position to have this opportunity," Groce said.

The sophomores followed step.

Nnanna Egwu had 12 points and 12 rebounds, showing emotion after made baskets and battling with the vaunted Miami frontline like the paint was his territory. Tracy Abrams added eight points, three rebounds and two assists, playing with his usual disdain for fear and a willingness to accept responsibility in the biggest moments.

"We have a lot of guys coming back, and I'm pretty sure those guy know this feeling right now," Abrams said. "We just have to grow from it."

From here, the program is now in the hands of Abrams and Egwu and others returning. Now moving on, Paul, Richardson, Griffey and McLaurin helped Groce set the foundation for his program, exceeding expectations and nearly reaching the Sweet Sixteen.

Following the game, Paul fought back tears during interviews. Griffey said he didn't want to take his jersey off. Richardson and McLaurin were their usual upbeat selves, smiling and laughing. While those guys remained true to form following the game, the team did during it.

"Tough and together" was the motto all year. It's the enduring message that Paul said he hopes will live on for seasons to come. And it's the way the team played in the final game, when it almost defeated a very good Miami squad.

"I feel very blessed to have coached that group and what they have done as we move forward here from year one to help us build a foundation of what we want to be about," Groce said.


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