As weeks go, this has been one to bronze and slide neatly into the Illini basketball vault.
First a heart-stopping, come-from-behind 74-72 victory over No. 1 Indiana, complete with an almost unbelievable game-winning play that will ensure Tyler Griffey never pays for a meal the rest of his life as long as an Illini basketball fan is present (starting after his eligibility is complete, of course).
Then a come-from-behind victory at 18th-ranked Minnesota on Sunday, a 57-53 upset that included more Griffey heroics. But in this one, the shot of the game came off the unlikely hand of 6-1 Tracy Abrams, who used an isolation against 6-11, 260-pound Elliott Eliason to his advantage. With Illinois up 54-53, and the clock sliding inside of 20 seconds, Abrams moved Eliason backward, then danced back outside the 3-point line and fired a dagger that had to make Minnesota coach Tubby Smith weak in the knees.
Abrams’ 3-pointer with 18 seconds to play gave Illinois a 4-point lead.
And at the other end, it was Sam McLaurin who got a hand on Austin Hollins’ 3-pointer, deflecting a shot that Abrams gobbled up, all but securing a road victory that, combined with the Indiana upset, absolutely changes the feel of Illinois’ season.
Remember: On Jan. 27 Illinois embarked on a five-game stretch that was their “gauntlet,” in which four of the five were nationally ranked and the other was a Wisconsin team that could move into the Top 25 today (coming off Saturday’s upset of Michigan).
A lot of us said at the time that going 2-3 in that stretch would be terrific. But after losing the first three – to Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin – that looked unlikely. Especially when the next opponent, Indiana, was elevated to No. 1 in the country.
But the victory over Illinois and Indiana has improved Illinois’ record to 17-8 and 4-7. And there are still very winnable home games against Purdue (Wednesday), Penn State and Nebraska as well as road games at Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State.
Nothing is guaranteed. But suddenly all outcomes are possible again.
Illinois trailed Minnesota by 12 in the first half. But a 17-4 run to close the half, including D.J. Richardson’s difficult 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer, gave Illinois a 31-30 lead at intermission.
Minnesota could have been up much more than 12 because Illinois started the game with a flurry of missed shots and turnovers. Really, that was the Gophers’ fatal mistake – failing to put Illinois away when it had a chance in the first half.
Groce has said he felt his team was “coming on,” with improvements on offense coming before he cracked the whip on defense. And now he believes he’s seeing an overall improvement that stems from players finally getting some of his guiding principles.
“Guys made big plays,” Groce said after the Minnesota victory. “Guys have a really good spirit about them right now. There’s great toughness, great togetherness and they’re starting to trust the system better now.
“We can still get better. We have a couple days leading up to the Purdue game at home on Wednesday. We have kind of set the standard for how we want to play, with passion, togetherness and trust and we have to play like that Wednesday night.”
Griffey led Illinois with 16 points and the fact that he followed his big game against Indiana with a game in which he knocked down four more 3-pointers is an indication that maybe the shooting slump is a thing of the past. At least the freeze has thawed.
Groce said there was never a sense of panic, even when Illinois fell behind 13-2 to start the game or when the Minnesota lead grew to a dozen at 26-14 with less than five minutes to play in the first half.
“I just told them, ‘It’s a long game,’” Groce said. “Shoot, we were down 12 with five minutes to go against Indiana. We got smashed by Gonzaga to start that game. It’s a 40-minute game for a reason.
“One thing that’s happening now is that guys are not abandoning the system when we get hit in the mouth. They are sticking with what we practice. They’re getting more comfortable and I think it’s a big reason we’re getting better.”
Don’t be mis-led. There’s still much work to be done if Illinois is going to get into the NCAA Tournament. Beating Purdue at home Wednesday will be very difficult. Winning anywhere on the road is always hard.
But this week – with victories over No. 1 Indiana and No. 18 Minnesota – brings all possibilities back into play.