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Illini March on thanks to Paul's senior moment

Guard takes over when it matters to set up quarterfinal meeting with Indiana

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

7:29 PM CDT, March 14, 2013

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Tied at 49 with 14.6 seconds left in Thursday's first-round Big Ten tournament game, Illinois coach John Groce didn't want a timeout before his team's final possession.

Nor did Brandon Paul need directions before dropping a 15-foot, fadeaway jumper over Minnesota's Austin Hollins at the buzzer to beat the Gophers 51-49 and remove any lingering doubts about Illinois making the NCAA tournament.

March is made for impromptu college basketball moments like this, when seniors such as Paul improvise to do whatever it takes to prevail — especially when it means taking over. Finally, a United Center crowd got to see a homegrown guard dominate a basketball game he ultimately won with a last-second shot.

"I didn't want to lose,'' Paul said. "We worked too hard and this team has so much character. … In that situation, I wanted the ball.''

Like every kid, Paul had played out clutch scenarios in his head countless times growing up in Gurnee, where he was Mr. Basketball of Illinois at Warren High School. Like every kid, those imaginary situations always included Paul stepping up, not aside.

"In times like that, you just have to see what the defense gives you,'' Paul said.

The Gophers gave him Hollins, an athletic, 6-foot-4 defender whose turnover gave Illinois its chance. Patiently dribbling above the top of the key, Paul dramatically worked the clock under five seconds … then four …

Groce had coached his guys well enough that Paul knew not to leave enough time for Minnesota to rebound and ruin the day. As coached, Paul released his shot with less than two seconds left. His isolation play led to a wild celebration after the ball hit the bottom of the net as the red light flashed.

"I knew it was going in when it left my hand,'' Paul said.

The key to the sequence perhaps came before the possession, when Paul intervened, with Groce's blessing, just as sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams was set to take the inbounds pass. It didn't matter that Abrams hit a clutch shot in the closing seconds the last time Illinois beat Minnesota. Paul waved off his understanding younger teammate to put the ball, and the game, in his hands.

"Coach called it and wanted Brandon with the ball,'' Abrams said. "I was ready. I'm not going to be shy to try to win the game. But it was a great decision. Brandon's been through it before. Today was his turn.''

Making it anybody else's turn would have been silly. The rest of the Illini shot 8-for-40. Seniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey picked a poor time to regress.

The only Illinois player to score in double figures, Paul finished with 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. The steals made him the only Illini player besides Mark Smith (1978-81) to record 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 150 steals in his career.

Yet what impressed Paul most when he studied the stat sheet was a zero.

"I'm more excited I didn't turn the ball over,'' Paul said. "That's another step moving forward.''

Illinois advanced to play top-seeded Indiana: U. of I. versus IU on March 15. Beware the I's of March on the West Side. But without Paul, the Illini would have been headed south to Champaign after a rugged game that was tied at 7 after nine minutes.

Groce called it Illinois' best defensive half of the season. Others wondered when Chicago became host to the Big Ten wrestling tournament too. It was a game only a grinder could love. Nobody came away thinking Illinois would be cutting down nets Sunday, but the Illini did exhibit an admirable quality for which they are not always known.

"You have to have some toughness,'' Groce said. "Our last two possessions, we found a way.''

Recounting how Illinois willed itself to two offensive rebounds, which resulted in Richardson nailing a 3-pointer with 48 seconds remaining, excited Groce as much as talking about Paul's game-winner.

When Illini strongman Sam McLaurin forced Hollins out of bounds to set up Paul's heroics, my hamstrings hurt just watching Groce leave his feet in joy. No Big Ten coach burns more calories per game than Groce.

"I'm just happy for our older guys,'' Groce said. "They've been through a lot.''

That explains the relief on Paul's face in the locker room after he said a quick goodbye to his parents, Cliff and Lynda. The Pauls hurried off to Cleveland to watch younger son Darius, the Mid-American Conference player of the year, play Thursday night for Western Michigan before heading back west on I-90 in time for Friday's tipoff.

"They're super parents,'' Paul said.

The same word described their son when Illinois needed it most.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh