CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- He laughed, not out loud, but certainly to himself every now and again.
How could he not?
Not long ago, Brandon Paul was thinking he was going to stop taking 3-point shots. Maybe not altogether, but certainly cut them down -- go for more of a sure thing, such as drives to the hoop.
His confidence was somewhere near the curbside thanks to an abysmal outside shooting slump that started in the first game of the season and really hadn’t abated since. Paul was shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, down from 36 percent just last season.
Which is why, as Paul was shooting off his back foot with a hand in his face, beating the shot clock with a swish of the net, knocking down eight of 10 from beyond the arc and scoring 43 points in Illinois’ 79-74 upset of No. 5 Ohio State, he just had to chuckle.
“I did laugh a couple of times,’’ the 6-foot-4 junior said. “After the first few went in, I just decided I was going to keep on shooting. It was big for me because I’d been looking down on myself because the shots weren’t going in.’’
Clearly he was saving up.
Paul’s 43 points were the third most by any player in Illinois history. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's the only college basketball player over the past 15 seasons to score at least 43 points while attempting 15 or fewer shots. Now that's efficient.
Heck, his point total was only five less than his team scored in a game against St. Bonaventure earlier this season.
Yes, it was a no-he-didn’t, oh-my-goodness jaw-dropper of a night, one that made you shake your head even when you watched it live.
Every shot Paul hit was crucial. He scored 10 points in a row to erase an eight-point first-half deficit and scored the final 15 of the game -- none bigger than his last 3 of the night.
With Illinois clinging to a 71-70 lead and less than a minute left, the Illini got the ball with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock. They inbounded to Paul, who somehow beat the disappearing clock to sink a 3 from the deepest corner of the baseline with Aaron Craft’s hand right in his face.
“We wanted to make him shoot a challenged shot, and he did,’’ OSU coach Thad Matta said. “It was a great shot. We were there. Aaron almost fouled him, but it was as big as an ocean for him tonight.’’
Truth is, it’s not Paul’s final dagger that will haunt the one-time prohibitive Big Ten favorite Buckeyes, who now have dropped to 3-2 in league play. It’s the two-minute span in which Paul didn’t score a point. Ohio State led by 11, 48-37. The fans were groaning, sensing that the Bucks were about to cruise to victory and turn an entertaining game into a walkover.
Illinois shot 61 percent from beyond the arc against a team that had allowed opponents to sink only 30 percent from long distance. Illinois also dropped 74 on a team that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 54.9 points per game.
Bruce Weber's team went toe to toe on the boards (28-27 edge to OSU) against a team that outrebounds opponents by an average of 8.7 per game.
That span and those numbers are what will have Ohio State looking hard in the mirror.
That and the unkind bookends of history. Just a year ago, the Buckeyes rallied from a 13-point deficit against the Illini. Weber was quick to remind his team of that during a huddle after it had regained the lead.
No doubt Matta might offer up that bit of information in the future.
“You get to the round of 32 and then the Sweet 16, and you get comfortable,’’ Sullinger said. “You get beat.’’
It would be easy to write off this loss as a bad night for the Buckeyes and a ridiculously good one for Paul. It’s not altogether inaccurate. But Matta looks a little more critically at his team and doesn't think anything is quite that simple.
He watched the film of Ohio State's 76-47 win Saturday against Iowa, a victory most viewed as a sign that OSU was back from its loss to Indiana, and saw things differently. He saw a team that made mistakes despite what looked like an overwhelmingly strong defensive effort. A team that is full of good kids but still needs a presence and a leader, especially at practice.
He’s not ready to sound the alarm, even if his players are starting to ding it for him.
Somewhere in the middle is probably the right reaction. This isn’t wholesale panic time in Columbus, not with three losses to three good teams. Yet in a league as deep and as difficult as the Big Ten, there’s little room for error, especially with what stands as an even more crucial game against Indiana looming Sunday.
“We’re not going to bite on fool’s gold,’’ Matta said. “We have to play better. Unfortunately the numbers [from the Iowa game] were a little bit misconstrued, and those got blown out of the water tonight.’’
Certainly some of that was due to Illinois, or more specifically Paul.
There are some things no one can guard against, and that includes a guy who’s turning a Division I basketball game into a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Paul’s night started out about as horrifically as a night can begin. He coughed up four turnovers in the first seven minutes and didn’t have a bucket to negate the miscues.
It wasn’t exactly what Paul was imagining when he was roused from his pregame nap by a text from his coach that read simply, "This is your time. Be special."
“The way he started," Weber said, "he was special bad."
By the end, he was unforgettably spectacular. Laughing all the way to victory.