Only for two tenths of a second did Illinois lead Indiana in the second half on Thursday night. Luckily for the Illini, they chose the right ones.
Illinois stunned the top-ranked Hoosiers 74-72 in Champaign thanks to a game-ending defensive gaffe that will cost Indiana both sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and the No. 1 spot in the polls.
With the score tied and Illinois guard Brandon Paul inbounding the ball from the corner with only nine tenths of a second remaining, Illini forward Tyler Griffey set a right-wing screen to try to free up a shooter and then cut to the basket. Christian Watford left Griffey to cover a shooter and Cody Zeller failed to pick him, a miscommunication that left the Illinois forward wide open underneath the basket for the game-winning layup just before time expired.
Griffey's bucket touched off a jubilant celebration all throughout Assembly Hall as Illinois students stormed mid-court even as the referees were still checking to make sure the game-winning layup counted. D.J. Richardson and Sam McLaurin leapt onto the scorer's table and pumped their fists, while the rest of their teammates walked around looking for someone to hug.
The enthusiasm from the Illini was certainly justifiable considering the ramifications of this win for their season.
Had Illinois not managed to claw back from a 14-point second-half deficit, it would have fallen to 2-8 in Big Ten play with road games against Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State still left on the schedule. The Illini are still only 16-8 overall and 3-7 in league play even after the win, but their NCAA tournament hopes are bolstered by victories over Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and now the Hoosiers.
D.J. Richardson was the hero of the Illinois comeback until Griffey's layup, scoring 23 points including eight straight to erase a 70-62 deficit in the final three minutes. Griffey had 14 points and 8 rebounds and Paul had 21 points, the biggest of which were two free throws to tie the score at 72 with 36 seconds to go after a Victor Oladipo layup had briefly given Indiana the lead again.
Indiana could have won the game in regulation on its final possession had Oladipo not been stripped going to the rim. Richardson recovered the loose ball and streaked up court to try to win it for Illinois but Oladipo recovered from behind to swat his game-winning layup attempt out of bounds with nine tenths of a second to go, paving the way for Griffey's heroics.
Seeing the nation's top-ranked team fall within a week of inheriting the No. 1 ranking for a fifth straight time only reinforces the fact that college basketball has no elite teams this season.
Louisville lost three straight games last month. Kansas fell at woeful TCU on Wednesday night. And now Indiana, only five days removed from the glory of beating Michigan and seizing first place in the Big Ten, has been upset by an Illinois team that had lost six of seven games entering play Thursday night.
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