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Dainja comes through in win-or-go home moment

Mar. 15—MINNEAPOLIS — Sencire Harris stood outside the Illinois locker room Friday night with a giant speaker in hand waiting for Dain Dainja.

The celebration had already started following Friday night's come-from-behind 77-74 victory against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at the Target Center. Dainja was quickly shuttled off after the handshake line for a postgame interview on BTN's set just off the court.

Harris stepped out into the hallway after the first round of music and dancing subsided. As soon as he saw Dainja approaching, though, he started the music back up and ushered his teammate into the locker room for round two.

"He's the reason we won that game, honestly," Illinois guard Luke Goode said of Dainja. "Celebrations like that, that's the stuff you remember."

Dainja put on a show in the second half for plenty of fans in the Target Center stands there to see him play. The Brooklyn Park, Minn., native had family on hand plus friends and his old coaches.

What they saw was reminiscent of the way the 6-foot-9 forward dominated in high school. Too strong. Too physical. Too smooth as the topper.

Dainja entered the game in the second half with Illinois facing a double-digit deficit. Then scored 12 points in the final 11 minutes to finish with a critical 18 points and eight rebounds. Playing time has come in fits and starts for Dainja this season, but he came through in a win-or-go-home moment Friday against Ohio State.

"He's had an up and down year — he's not always playing — but he's really mature about it," Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier said. "He keeps working on his game. We're going to need Dain. He's going to have to play. He's our best center in terms of physicality. We need him.

"He was ready for the moment. He's always been ready when coach has put him in the game, and it's just huge for us."

How Dainja has handled his new role this season has resonated with his teammates. It's what made Friday night's celebration a little more special. Goode said Dainja was all smiles as he entered the locker room after the game, and his teammates were just as excited for his success as they would have been their own.

"It's just about staying positive and bringing good energy to the team," Dainja said. "I don't want to be a downer to the team. I always want to bring good energy, make the guys laugh a little bit."

There was plenty of good energy Friday night. Plenty of reason to smile. Because deep into a season with fluctuating playing time and an uncertain role game-to-game Dainja hasn't changed his approach. The person least surprised by his 18 and eight against Ohio State? Dainja himself.

"It was my night before the game started," the Illinois forward said. "That's my mentality every time I step on the court. It's always going to be my night. On this journey, I know it's a marathon. I'm just taking it day by day. I know that's the right route for me and my path.

"It feels good at the end of the season, the most important time of the season, to come in and be able to make an impact on the team."

Friday night's impact was as a dominant force in the paint. Ohio State threw multiple defenders at Dainja. None of them were all that successful. The small change Dainja made in how he attacked the Buckeyes in the post compared to the two teams' previous matchup made all the difference.

Dainja had seven points and five rebounds in that late January road win in Columbus, Ohio. Rewatching the game film Thursday night made him realize he tried for finesse to often in post-up opportunities instead of using his strength.

"He studies, he cares," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "He took one left-handed jump hook kind of fading away and we said there's no need for that. ... Dain Dainja, when he powers the basketball to the front of the rim, is extremely hard to guard."

Guerrier has some experience dealing with Dainja's physicality in the post this season in practice. The 6-8 forward is fairly physical himself, and it's not always enough.

"I don't think anybody can really guard him," Guerrier said. "He's just really physical, a big body. He's moving his feet. It was not just offensively. Defensively, he was great, too, and a big presence inside. We're going to need him to play like that for us to be successful."