CHICAGO – If he has hit a bigger shot than this, Brandon Paul couldn’t remember it. He’d have a hard time matching it.
Paul nailed a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer and finished with 25 points to lead Illinois to a 51-49 victory over Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
“This team has so much character,” Paul said. “My mindset was just to be aggressive. Coach told me to stay aggressive. I basically wanted to attack on offense and do other things. I’m more excited about I didn’t turn the ball over today.”
Illinois (22-11) led by as much as 12 but was trailing by three when D.J. Richardson nailed a 3 with 47 seconds left to tie it at 49. That basket came after the Illini missed four shots on the possession.
The Gophers (20-12) had a chance to win it, but Austin Hollins stepped on the sideline after catching an inbounds pass with 14 seconds left. Paul then went the other way and pulled up left of the free-throw line for the winner as time expired, sending the eighth-seeded Illini to the quarterfinals today against top-seeded and third-ranked Indiana.
Paul was the only player to score in double figures for the Illini, who shot only 32.1 percent and were outrebounded 38-26. They pulled this one out, anyway, because they had more offensive rebounds (12) than Minnesota (11) and committed only six turnovers while the Gophers had 19.
Coach John Groce said he was “50-50” about calling a timeout before the winning shot but “decided to ride with it.”
“The big thing that we were trying to do there is make sure he didn’t go until between five and seven on the game clock because we wanted to make sure we got the last shot,” Groce said.
Now, they’ll get Indiana again, a team they beat last month. The Gophers will have to wait and see what’s next.
Austin Hollins, who thought he might have been pushed on that out of bounds play, led Minnesota with 16 points. Andre Hollins added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Gophers, who still are a good bet for the NCAA tournament even though it’s been a disappointing stretch for a team that was ranked No. 8 at one point.
“I think we have a good resume,” coach Tubby Smith said after his team’s third straight loss and seventh in 10 games. “We haven’t played well of late, but when you look at the entire body of work . but it’s not up to us. It will be a sweat-it-out type of thing.”
Illinois was leading 32-22 early in the second half when Minnesota went on a 19-4 run.
The Gophers scored 10 straight, getting back-to-back 3-pointers by Andre Hollins and a three-point play by Andre Ingram to tie it before Nnanna Egwu scored on a putback for Illinois. Minnesota continued to pour it on, though, and Austin Hollins finished the run by hitting three free throws to make it 41-36 with 8:35 remaining.
It remained tight right up until Paul hit that jumper at the end, sending a loud roar through the arena.
That came after a huge basket by Richardson, who had missed two 3-pointers on that possession before tying it. He was just 2 of 12 in the game but delivered the end.
“My teammates found me, I kept shooting,” Richardson said. “I’m a shooter, that’s what coach wanted me to do. I didn’t think about (the missed shots).”
All that came after a first half that was nothing short of ugly.
Paul scored 12 as Illinois built a 25-16 lead despite hitting just 9 of 24 shots, but as bad as things were for them, multiply it a few times for Minnesota.
The Gophers were 6 of 22 with 11 turnovers, and that barely tells the story. They got outscored 19-2 over a 12-minute stretch after jumping out to a 7-2 lead and went nearly eight minutes without a point.
“It’s not a feeling that you want to go into Selection Sunday,” Andre Hollins said. “We haven’t played our best basketball these past three games. We still want to have faith. We have a pretty good resume. A tough strength of schedule, a good RPI.