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Illini nearly upset Miami but fall short 63-59 in NCAA tournament

NnannEgwu #32 Illinois Fighting Illini reacts during second half against Miami Hurricanes during third round 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Nnanna Egwu #32 of the Illinois Fighting Illini reacts during the second half against the Miami Hurricanes during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at The Frank Erwin Center on March 24, 2013 in Austin, Texas. | Getty

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Updated: March 25, 2013 2:37PM

AUSTIN, Texas — By any measure, Illinois enjoyed an encouraging first season under coach John Groce.

A group that lost 12 of its last 14 games last season, that lost its coach (Bruce Weber) and its lottery pick (Meyers Leonard), went places no one could have expected.

In October, Illini Nation probably would have jumped at a season in which Illinois (23-13) would win the Maui Invitational, notch victories against Indiana, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Butler and reach the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

It might take a little while before the warm thoughts linger, though. Because when second-seeded Miami ended the seventh-seeded Illini’s season with a 63-59 victory Sunday, Illinois wasn’t thinking about what it had accomplished. It was thinking it wanted to keep playing.

And so losing hurt, especially for the four seniors who just had played their last college game. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin put so much into making the most of their last college go-round. Even though career-ending games are all part of March Madness, to have it end so abruptly is always difficult to absorb.

Adding salt to the wound, when the ball caromed out of bounds under the Illini basket with 42.3 seconds left, Illinois’ players were shocked the ball was given to the Hurricanes (29-6). They thought the ball went off Miami’s Kenny Kadji, and replays seemed to confirm that.

When a red-eyed Nnanna Egwu (12 points, 12 rebounds) was asked about the play, Groce stepped in and said, ‘‘I’ll answer all questions regarding that play.’’

An obviously drained Groce praised the officials, but he made it clear the call, which came with the Illini down 57-55, was as tough as it was pivotal.

‘‘I had two thoughts,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I thought the officiating was tremendous. My second thought is, you saw the same video that I did. It’s a hard game to officiate. That’s how he saw the play; I respect the call he made.’’

Those are the breaks of the game, McLaurin said.

‘‘I wouldn’t say that call cost us the game,’’ McLaurin said. ‘‘There was other stuff that happened throughout the game. Players are going to make mistakes, and officials make mistakes as well.’’

When the game ended, all the air seemed to come out of Paul.

‘‘When the clock hit zero, it kind of hit me faster than I thought it would that it was the last game of my college career,’’ he said. ‘‘And more important, my last time being able to step on a court with the guys I came up with. I’m proud of the way we fought tonight.’’

Miami coach Jim Larranaga knew it had been a close call.

‘‘Our hats are off to Illinois,’’ Larranaga said. ‘‘They played the best defense on us that we have seen. After the game was over, when I shook hands with John Groce, I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say to him because I thought his kids played their hearts out. We were very fortunate to come away with a great victory.’’

From Paul (18 points) to Griffey (12) and right down the roster, Illinois delivered a performance worthy of the magnitude of the game. But in the end, Rion Brown (21 points), Shane Larkin (17) and the rest of the Hurricanes made enough plays to prevail.

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