Illinois holds on to advance past Colorado

Chad Conine, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

AUSTIN, Texas -- The operative phrase this time of year - survive and advance - sometimes serves to take aesthetics out of the equation.
Illinois survived an 11-minute stretch without a field goal to start the second half, and hung on to advane in the NVAA tournament with a 57-49 victory over Colorado on Friday afternoon at the Frank Erwin Center.
Illini coach John Groce said he doesn't know if he's ever had a team survive a 23-2 run like the one the Buffaloes put on Illinois, but he attributed the win to the poise of his senior-led team.
"A lot of teams would have cracked," Groce said. "They have found ways in a lot of situations when our backs were against the wall and we did that today."
No. 7 seeded Illinois moves on to play Miami in the East Regional on Sunday in Austin, with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake.
The Buffaloes erased a 16-point halftime deficit by opening the second half with a 23-2 run.
Illinois went the first 11:28 of the second half without a field goal and scored just two points on Tracy Abrams' two made free throws.
Meanwhile, Colorado, seeded 10, bounced back from a 7:14 scoreless drought at the end of the first half. Buffaloes guard Askia Booker got particularly hot, hitting three 3-pointers during the surge.
"In the second half we showed extreme heart coming back," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "We just didn't have enough of what it took on key possessions."
It was Abrams who finally hit a runner down the lane to break the Illinois drought and loosened up the Illini. D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul followed in short order with 3-pointers that put Illinois back ahead 48-44 with 6:03 to play.
This time, Illinois (22-13) didn't give up the lead. Brandon Paul went 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final 5:18 to help the Illini hold on.
Abrams made the key play of the closing minutes when he missed a 3-pointer but got his own rebound with 1:10 left. Abrams passed to Paul, who was immediately fouled. Paul went to the line and hit both ends of a 1-and-1 to increase Illinois' lead to 52-46.
"We just found ways and the outcome came out positive our way," Abrams said. "You just have to stay tough-minded."
Paul finished with 17 points and three steals to lead Illinois.
"We like to finish everything," Paul said. "Now our focus is on Miami."
Booker led Colorado with 14 points, hitting 4 of 10 from 3-point range. But the Buffaloes suffered another drought when they made just one field goal in the final 5:38.
"It's easy to come back," Boyle said. "It's hard to come back and win. Our scoring droughts are tough to deal with. We didn't play well enough down the stretch to win today."
Illinois finished the first half on a 13-0 run to take a 37-21 lead to the break.
The Fighting Illini filled up the basket from 3-point range while Colorado (21-13) was stone-cold. Richardson hit a pair of 3s and Abrams added another with three seconds left in the half. Illinois was 6-for-16 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Colorado failed to score in the final 7:18 of the first half. Andre Roberson made a layup on an assist from Spencer Dinwiddie to cut Illinois' lead to 24-21, but the Buffaloes missed their final 11 shots of the half.
Paul sparked Illinois with the Illini trailing 15-11 in the early going. Paul hit a jumper and a 3-pointer, then Tyler Griffey and Richardson added 3s as Illinois went in front 22-17 and wouldn't let go of the lead until midway through the second half.
Richardson finished the first half with 11 points, playing a key role in the Illini's 26-6 overall run.
NOTES: Illinois vs. Colorado was the first of two Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchups at the Austin NCAA Tournament site, the only venue that hosted games between the two conferences in the opening round. ... Illinois first-year coach John Groce led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season with a No. 13 seed. "He's been where we want to go," Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said. ... Colorado returned to play a game in Texas for the first time since the Buffaloes left the Big 12 following the 2011 season. Colorado fell to 2-8 in Austin.

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