CHAMPAIGN – Tyler Griffey made the easiest and biggest shot of his career.
The senior forward took an inbounds pass and made a wide-open layup with 0.9 seconds to play to give Illinois a 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana on Thursday night, the fifth straight week the nation’s top-ranked team lost.
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, whose team has been No. 1 for a total of seven weeks this season, doesn’t have a reason for the recent weekly changes on top of the poll.
“I can’t answer that. I’m not sure,” Crean said. “I just know that these games are 40-minute games. We played at a high level for most of the game.”
The Hoosiers were in charge until the final 31⁄2 minutes when the Illini (16-8 overall, 3-7 Big Ten) finally put together a run to take and then retake the lead.
“I know this, when we turn the ball over we’re not very good,” Crean said. “And the biggest difference tonight was 28 points off turnovers to our 16.”
And nothing could have been worse for the Hoosiers (20-3, 8-2) than the way the game ended.
With 0.9 seconds left Griffey left defenders Cody Zeller and Christian Watford behind on an inbounds play from the baseline, took the pass from Brandon Paul and delivered the uncontested buzzer-beater for the Illini.
The shot sent hundreds of students onto the court – holding their collective breath as officials checked the replay to make sure the clock hadn’t beaten Griffey – and Paul and fellow guard D.J. Richardson hugged and teared up with relief.
Illinois had lost eight of 11 since starting the season 12-0. The Illini had been ranked as high as No. 10 and were now falling to the bottom of the Big Ten.
Griffey, accustomed to struggling in recent weeks, seemed surprised with the ease he was able to make the game-winner.
“I just made a simple curl cut and left two guys behind me, and Brandon got off a heck of a pass,” he said. “Zeller and Watford were both right in front of me and just kind of stayed there.”
Crean, whose team just moved into the No. 1 spot after knocking off then-No. 1 Michigan on Saturday, said the play was a lot like the other breakdowns in the Hoosiers’ game that let Illinois climb back from a 12-point halftime deficit.
“We didn’t communicate,” Crean said.
“They’re very deserving of the win; they never gave in,” he added. But he qualified that with, “We didn’t put them away when we had the opportunities.”
Indiana’s loss drops them into a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten with Michigan and Michigan State. For the Illini, the win means a move out of 10th in the 12-team conference up into a ninth-place tie with Iowa.
More importantly, it’s a potential lifeline for an Illini team that still has to face No. 18 Minnesota on the road Sunday and had been watching its season slip away.
“It was good to get back to having that toughness and togetherness and trust that we needed,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Illinois hadn’t beaten a No. 1 team since a 2004 win over Wake Forest. But the Illini had won nine of the last 10 against the Hoosiers in Champaign. And this season, whatever else has gone wrong, Illinois has delivered against the big boys. Coming into Thursday night the Illini had already beaten three teams now in the top 15: No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 10 Ohio State and No. 14 Butler.
Richardson had 23 points for Illinois, Paul had 21 and Griffey finished with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Zeller led Indiana with 14 points, while Will Sheehey had 13, Watford 12 and Jordan Hulls 11.
Indiana shot 50 percent from the field (25 of 50), 52.9 percent from 3-point range (9 of 17) and 93 percent from the free throw line (13 of 14). The Hoosiers led by an 8- to 10-point margin for most of the second half.
And when 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu fouled out with just under 5 minutes to play, Indiana looked in control. Egwu is the only Illini player with the size to realistically match up with the 7-0 Zeller.
Watford made two free throws after Egwu’s fifth foul and, at 69-59, the Illini looked done.
But with the clock under 3 minutes, Richardson went on a run of his own, first burying consecutive 3-pointers and then hitting a midrange jumper on the run to tie the game at 70 with 1:17 to play.
Oladipo’s layup put the Hoosiers back on top with 50 seconds left, but Paul answered with two free throws, the first banked in, to tie the score again at 72.
With the clock under 30 seconds, Indiana had the ball for what would have been a last shot but Oladipo fumbled the ball. Richardson picked it up and sprinted down court. Oladipo slapped Richardson’s layup out of bounds to set up the final play.
Groce credited Richardson for sparking the comeback.
“I thought he was absolutely terrific on both ends of the floor,” Groce said. “He battled, he fought.”
Griffey was benched several weeks ago after a blowout loss at Wisconsin. On a team that had lost its shooting touch, the senior forward had grown especially cold. And, though one of Illinois’ bigger players at 6-9, he wasn’t adding much to the inside presence the Illini desperately needed.
The play that brought him to life Thursday, though, had nothing to do with Illinois’ late surge. Griffey hit a 3-pointer less than 4 minutes into the second half. He had missed 20 straight 3-point attempts, dating to the start of the Big Ten season.
“I said to myself, ‘Finally,’” said Griffey, who said he has been doing so much extra shooting that he’s had to have regular ice treatments on his wrist.
Groce said that, even after he benched Griffey, he never gave up on him.
“I just have told him numerous times here I believe in him,” the first-year Illinois coach said. “I do.”