Illini overcome drought, Buffs to advance
March, 22, 2013
By Carter Strickland | ESPNChicago.com
AUSTIN, Texas -- Somewhere lost in all the pomp, circumstance, inspirational montages and endless car commercials of the NCAA tournament is the little secret someone forgot to mention to Colorado and Illinois -- in order to win, you must put the ball in the basket with at least a modicum of regularity.
That's not to say the seventh-seeded Illini and No. 10 seed Buffaloes missed all their shots. But each did miss enough -- 11 straight for CU to end the first half; 14 in a row, including 11 3-pointers, for the Illini at the start of the second half -- to build unnecessary and frustrating drama into a game that could have been void of both. (Apparently it is in the contract of both teams that, since this is March, they must provide some madness. And boy, were the coaches plenty red in the face.)
But, finally, the drama came to a close, along with Colorado's season, as Illinois' 16-point lead -- built during CU's horrid shooting stretch -- was enough to withstand a 23-2 Buffaloes run -- made possible by the Illini's putrid shooting stretch -- to eke out a 57-49 win in the second round on Friday.
"It's easy to come back. It is hard to come back and win,'' CU coach Tad Boyle said. "Our scoring droughts are tough to deal with. We played well enough to win today. We just didn't play well enough down the stretch to win.''
It's hard to say Illinois (23-12) played well enough to win, either. The Illini shot 13 percent in the second half. But they pulled it out at the end.
"It was only fitting that the game was maybe as strange a game -- as far as the ebb and flow of it -- that I have been associated with this group,'' said Illinois coach John Groce. "We have done it the hard way with this group a lot.''
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams scored 13 for Illinois on 4-of-10 shooting, and added 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
"We just find ways,'' said Illinois guard Tracy Abrams.
Now it is time for Illinois to try to find a way to win against Miami, which appears to be about as intimidating as Tony Montana. The Illini get the No. 2 seeded Hurricanes here in Austin on Sunday. So they get to deal with size -- three players of 6-foot-10 or better in the rotation; speed -- Shane Larkin moves like mercury on marble; and an experienced coach -- Jim Larranaga has been there, done that, with much less talent, just a few years ago at George Mason. It appears to be a daunting task for an Illinois program that slogged through the first nine games of its Big Ten schedule at 2-7. Miami started ACC play 13-0, by the way. Oh, and the Hurricanes had a 27-point win over then-No. 1 Duke.
"I know that they have got great size and they are going to play very hard,'' Groce said.
Illinois had its win over a No. 1, too, beating Indiana 74-72 on Feb. 7. So the Fighting Illini are capable. But they also need to be held culpable for their errors. It was those errors -- all 14 of them in a row -- plus a couple of turnovers, that might leave some wondering just how big a mismatch Sunday will be. (Did anyone mention Miami won 78-49 and had nine guys score in the first half against Pacific on Friday? Well, it did.)
OK, there are a few glimmers of hope. Illini guard Brandon Paul didn't improve his shooting percentage -- he is a 40 percent guy -- but did make 9 of 10 free throws, five of which helped seal the game. In fact, for as bad as the Illini were from the field (30.8 percent), they were solid from the line (70.8 percent).
"D.J. [Richardson] was in my ear, telling me to just keeping fighting,'' Paul said.
Then there was the defense and the rebounding. Illinois has now held two tournament teams under 50 points in its past three games -- Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament and Colorado (21-12) on Friday. The Illini, despite giving up 14 rebounds to Josh Scott, were able to win the battle of the boards 37-36. And that was crucial in a game where misses were rampant -- and will be crucial again against the taller, thicker Hurricanes.
Illinois proved it could close. After failing so miserably from the field and falling behind, the Illini finished on an 18-5 run. One might say that they looked into the abyss and didn't blink. Miami looms large; if they can look at the Ibis and do the same, they just might be OK.