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Brandon Paul buzzer-beater helps Illini move on in Big Ten tourney

Illinois' BrandPaul reacts final second second half an NCAA college basketball game Big Ten tournament against MinnesotThursday March 14 2013

Illinois' Brandon Paul reacts in the final second of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten tournament against Minnesota Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Chicago. Illinois won 51-49. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: March 14, 2013 10:05PM



This is what John Groce was hired to do.

A coach who showed a flair for March Magic at Ohio was at it again on Thursday at the United Center, where Illinois overcame Minnesota’s fiery second-half comeback .

Brandon Paul’s buzzer-beater sent the Gophers packing 51-49 and set up a meeting with Indiana, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Illinois won their only meeting, shocking the with the Hoosiers 74-72 on Feb 7 on another buzzer beater, by Tyler Griffey.

``The resiliency of this team is amazing,’’ Griffey said. ``But it’s survive and advance, so we can’t enjoy this one too much.’’

When Illinois (22-11) led 25-16 at the half, it looked like it might be in for smooth sailing. But the Gophers (20-12) stormed back and led 49-46 with 2:55 left.

The Illini finally tied the game at 49 with 48 seconds left on a three-pointer by D.J. Richardson, but only after missing their first four shots of riveting, determined possession that included a pair of misses by Richardson, who was 1 for 11 when he finally knocked down the game-tying shot.

I’m a shooter,’’ said Richardson, who finished with six points on 2-for-12 shooting. ``That’s my role on the team. I’m going to keep shooting. I knew one of them was going to fall, and it finally did.’’

At the other end, Sam McLaurin forced Austin Hollins into stepping out of bounds with 15 seconds.

That set up the game-winner by Paul, who held the ball for what seemed like an eternity, then drove in for a 15-foot pullup jumper near the free-throw line.

``I didn’t want to lose,’’ Paul said. ``We’ve worked too hard to get to this point. We had some ups and downs [this season], but this team has so much character.’’

Paul (25 points, 10 for 16) led the Illini, who survived even though they shot 32 percent to 40 percent. Minnesota also outrebounded Illinois 38-26. The Illini used a 19-16 turnover edge to earn a shot

at the Hooiser.

``My mindset was just to be aggressive,’’ Paul said. ``I basically wanted to attack on offense and do other things. I’m more excited that I didn’t turn the ball over today [than with shooting]. That’s another step forward.’’

That’s a key ingredient in the March formula of Groce, who won as a No. 13 and No. 14 NCAA seed at Ohio. Mainly known as a shooter before this season, Paul has stepped up his ball-handling and defense. The other seniors also have developed their all-around play. Griffey is a better rebounder and defender, Richardson puts the ball on the floor with more authority and McLaurin, ifth-year transfer from Coastal Carolina, has become a solid Big Ten post player.

``They’ve been through an awful lot,’’ Groce said. ``I’m really proud

of their resiliency. They’re aware that some people had written them off. That put a chip on their shoulder.’’

It’s a group that has weathered a coaching change, a surprising Maui Invitational title run, a rise to the top 10, a 2-7 Big Ten start, a five-game winning streak and a 1-3 finish.

After a roller coaster like that, it’s no wonder Friday’s Gopher game

seemed like a bump in the road.

``They responded very well in the second half of Big Ten play,’’ Groce said. ``Their mindset of being poised, the way they talk to one another, their body language—those intangible things mean as much as anything in terms of being able to get the outcome we got today.’’

Now they’ll find out how far the toughness Groce has tried to instill

can take them.



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