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Illinois basketball, Tyler Griffey have got their groove back

Illinois' Tyler Griffey (42) shoots over Indiana's Christian Watford (2) first half an NCAA college basketball game Assembly Hall Champaign

Illinois' Tyler Griffey (42) shoots over Indiana's Christian Watford (2) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill. on Thursday Feb. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/John Dixon)

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:39AM



Outside on Sunday, the snow was blowing. Inside, the smiles of satisfaction warmed an empty Williams Arena in Minneapolis as the Illini explained how they pulled off their second straight upset of a top-25 team.

No smile was wider than Tyler Griffey’s. For the second straight game, the senior from suburban St.  Louis had been instrumental at both ends of the floor.

During an eight-game, 0-for-22 three-point shooting slump, Griffey had been in danger of becoming the invisible man. Then he drained his first three-pointer since Jan. 2 early in the second half against Indiana on Thursday and went on to score the layup that beat the buzzer and the Hoosiers 74-72.

Griffey had 14 points and eight rebounds against Indiana. He followed that with 16 points in a 57-53 win at Minnesota. That included four free throws that were the only points Illinois scored in the opening nine minutes, when it trailed 13-4.

‘‘We don’t score in the first 10 minutes on Sunday if he doesn’t get two offensive rebounds, get fouled and go 4-for-4 from the free-throw line,’’ coach John Groce said Tuesday. ‘‘He’s graded out defensively almost double what he had in the early Big Ten schedule. I like his mind-set right now. His mind is in a good place. He’s defending, rebounding. He’s just really locked in.’’

In the last week, Illinois has gone from the NCAA tournament bubble to a No. 7 seed with an RPI of 26, according to CBSsports.com bracket expert Jerry Palm.

The Illini will need to keep it going Wednesday against Purdue. But they seem to be playing again with the confidence that propelled them to a 12-0 start.

‘‘Absolutely,’’ Griffey said, at a loss to explain why the Illini seem to be back on track. ‘‘You tell me. Your answer is as good as mine.’’

Here’s a theory: They’re having fun again, notably Griffey, who has gone from non-factor to X-factor.

‘‘When the first shot went down against Indiana,’’ he said, ‘‘I was like, ‘Finally!’ A relief came over me and I relaxed and played my game.’’

The game has become fun again.

‘‘That makes you want to play hard and play tough,’’ Griffey said. ‘‘And playing hard in turn makes it fun. It’s kind of a reciprocal relationship. When you put so much time and work into it, why not go out and try to have fun with it?’’

Another theory: The Illini are getting more comfortable with Groce’s system. It has been easier to dial down the pressure and play better.

And that has added up to a team pointed in the right direction again.



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