AUSTIN, Texas – Illinois has been doing it the hard way all season. Why change just because it’s the NCAA tournament?
After letting a big first-half lead slip away Friday, senior guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson bailed out the Illini with consecutive 3-pointers with 6 minutes to play, and No. 7 seed Illinois pulled out a tough 57-49 win over No. 10 seed Colorado in the second round of East Regional of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s March Madness,” Paul said. “That stuff happens all the time.”
Madness indeed. How else to explain how a team that gave up a 16-point halftime lead, allowed an opponent to go on a 21-0 run and shot 13 percent in the second half would still win by almost double-digits?
“It was a strange game,” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said. “This team has been a fun team to coach, an interesting team.”
Groce didn’t see anything quite like that last year when he was leading No. 13 seed Ohio to the round of 16. This time, his team survived its first game despite making three field goals in the second half.
It just so happened that two of those would prove to be the baskets that would win the game.
“We’ve played in so many games where we had to come back,” Richardson said. “We’re mature players. We’ve been through up and downs throughout our careers.”
Paul and Richardson are seniors who missed the tournament last season and teamed up on the two biggest possessions of the game for the Illini against Colorado.
Colorado had fought back from a 37-21 halftime deficit to take a 44-39 lead late in the second. Richardson pushed the Illini back in front with a long 3-pointer from the right wing, then made a steal and fed the ball to Paul, who swished another to make it 48-44.
Paul stretched the lead from the free throw line to put the game away in the final minute. Paul finished with 17 points despite shooting just 3 of 12 while guarded most of the game by Pac-12 defensive player of the year Andre Roberson.
“We’re a team that never gives up. D.J. was in my ear, just telling me to make plays,” Paul said.
The Illini came into the game confident the rigors of the Big Ten had prepared them for anything in the NCAA tournament and used their defensive muscle to build the big early lead. Tracy Abrams ended a 21-5 run over the final 10 minutes of the half with a 3-pointer – Illinois’ sixth of the first half – with 3 seconds left.
Everything flipped in the second.
Colorado regrouped behind Roberson and the hot shooting of Askia Booker, who made three 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half.
Paul picked up two quick fouls early in half and went to the bench. His absence over the next three minutes seemed to unsettle the Illini as Colorado kept chipping away at the lead. Even when Paul returned, he missed his first two shots.
Colorado made the hard work pay off when Josh Scott layup’s gave the Buffaloes the lead, and baskets by Xavier Johnson and Roberson pushed it to 44-39. Illinois finally broke its scoring drought on a basket by Abrams with 8:30 left in the half.
“We all made great plays on that run,” Booker said. “We were getting stop after stop and we were pushing it down their throat.”
And then ...
“They hit two big 3s,” Booker said, “and that changed momentum.”
Paul’s 3-pointer was one of the few times he was able to break free of Roberson. Back in the lead, the Illini seemed to regain their collective composure.
“A lot of teams would crack,” Groce said. “We had to find a way to grind, figure it out.”
Colorado was playing in consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time in 50 years only to make a quick exit. Booker scored 14 points and Roberson had nine points and eight rebounds. Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes’ leading scorer this season, finished with six points on 1 of 8 shooting.
“Our defense was good enough in the second half, our heart was good enough,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We’re disappointed being one-and-done.”