CHICAGO – Brandon Paul’s buzzer-beating floater early Thursday afternoon pushed No. 8 seed Illinois to a 51-49 win over Minnesota and into Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinals against Indiana. That means the postgame celebration in the Illinois locker room was jubilant but abbreviated.
The Illini have hydrating and studying to do. The show goes on, quickly, at tournament time.
John Groce is well aware. Apparently, he’s also well prepared.
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In his first year as Illinois’ coach, Groce has continued his magic in tournament settings. Thursday’s win makes Illinois 4-0 in tournaments this year as the Illini also won three games in three days to claim the Maui Invitational last November.
In five years as a head coach, Groce is 13-4 in postseason games and has two postseason conference tournament titles.
“I’ve been fortunate, obviously,” Groce said. “The magic comes from having really good players.”
For all the preparing, adjusting and scheming that goes into the job, Groce knows he’s a better coach when the shots like the one Paul hit Thursday go in. This one not only sent Minnesota packing and improved Groce’s postseason record, it moved the Big Ten tournament to 1-0 against the hype that preceded it.
This is March. Sometimes, things go mad.
Illinois took charge in the first half with a 19-2 run, but a 9-point halftime lead was a 5-point deficit with 8:27 left in the game. The Illini never led in the final 12:42 until Paul’s game-winning shot.
That’s the way it goes for Groce in March.
Groce was 9-2 in conference tournaments at Ohio University, starting with four wins as a No. 9 seed to win the Mid-American Conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid in 2009-10, his second season at Ohio. The hot shooting of then-freshman D.J. Cooper also sparked those No. 14 seed Bobcats to an NCAA tournament upset of Georgetown.
Cooper and a gifted, experienced supporting cast pushed Ohio through the MAC tournament again last season, and the Bobcats then beat Michigan and South Florida to get to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.
Groce was hired at Illinois shortly thereafter. He’s been well-taught when it comes to this tournament stuff. He was an assistant for eight years at three different stops under Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who’s guided teams to six Big Ten tournament championship games in eight years on the job and went to his second Final Four last season.
“I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world with the players I’ve had to work with and the coaches I’ve had a chance to work for,” Groce said.
Illinois (22-11) seems a virtual certainty for the NCAA tournament, but will play at least one more game here in Chicago. With his always-scratchy voice going a little hoarse about 45 minutes after Thursday’s win, Groce started rattling off a checklist of preparation-related tasks his team would spend the rest of Thursday undertaking to be ready for quick turnaround and an 11 a.m. local time game on Friday.
“It’s a challenge,” Groce said. “It’s what makes March so special.”
Illinois beat Southern California, host Chaminade and Butler in three days to win the Maui Invitational last November. There will be no Div. II breather on the second day of a tournament this time around. Indiana is not only the Big Ten regular-season champ playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and its first Big Ten tournament crown, but the Hoosiers will be playing for revenge Friday.
Illinois won the only regular-season meeting between the teams, 74-72, on Feb. 7. Groce declined to say much about Indiana other than calling the Hoosiers “a terrific basketball team,” but his track record says that the Illini will be ready.
“We have been in so many different environments,” Groce said. “You add that X-factor with the experience of our seniors. It helps with being poised. You have to play 40 minutes, and we did that.”
One of Illinois’ three senior starters, Brandon Paul, was just a third-team All-Big Ten selection and it speaks to the depth and talent of the league, and probably also to the Illini’s eighth-place finish. But Paul is the Big Ten’s second active leading scorer with 1,603 career points, and the way he got his 25 points Thursday, even before those memorable last bucket, makes him the kind of player who may not be done with buzzer-beating March heroics.
“These guys have been through an awful lot,” Groce said. “I think some people had written them off.”
D.J. Richardson’s 3-pointer tied the game at 49 with 48 seconds left Thursday, and Minnesota turned the ball over with 14.6 seconds left. Groce had two timeouts, but he chose to hold on to them. There was no no doubt the ball was going to be in Paul’s hands, and Illinois was either going to win or go to overtime.
Paul saved Illinois those minutes of preparation time for Friday.
“To be honest, I was 50-50 on whether I was going to call a timeout or not,” Groce said of the final seconds. “I knew what we wanted to go with, and we weren’t really going to give them a chance to make a defensive adjustment. We just decided to ride with it.”
With one of the Big Ten’s most talented players and a coach who thrives in March, Illinois rides on.