HONOLULU -- DJ Richardson cashed in his ticket to paradise, waiting until the last possible moment to cap Illinois' improbable road comeback.
The senior guard drained a 3-point shot from the corner with 0.1 seconds remaining to provide the Fighting Illini with a thrilling 78-77 overtime victory over Hawaii Friday evening before a stunned crowd of 7,550 at the Stan Sheriff Center. Fellow senior Brandon Paul led Illinois with 25 points and five 3-pointers, and teammate Tracy Abrams chipped in 22 to keep the road squad in the game.
Hawaii received 22 points and 11 rebounds from center Vander Joaquim, while Chicago native Brandon Spearman poured in 20 and grabbed nine boards. However, the home team missed six of its final 10 free-throw attempts down the stretch, and squandered a five-point overtime lead en route to losing in heartbreaking fashion.
The Rainbow Warriors withstood a feverish Fighting Illini comeback, as the visitors fought back from a 13-point halftime deficit to pull within five points with 10 minutes remaining in the game, and eventually sent the game into bonus time. Joaquim took over in the extra period, connecting on a 3-pointer and adding a jumper to keep the home team ahead by two. Hauns Brereton converted two free throws to put the Rainbow Warriors in front by four with just under two minutes remaining in overtime, but after Sam McLaurin added a layup to narrow the margin to 76-74, Illinois could only move to within a point of the lead as Abrams missed what would have been the game-tying free throw.
Hawaii (3-1) point guard Jace Tavita converted one of two free-throw attempts to put the home team ahead 77-75 with 7.5 seconds remaining, but after Abrams drove through the lane and zipped a pass to the awaiting guard in the corner, Richardson knocked down the game-winning shot to end any hopes of a Rainbow Warrior upset.
"Coach told me to get in the corner, and they found me. I knocked down a big, tough shot for us," said Richardson through a wide grin. "I was confident in the shot, and I told my teammates (behind me on the bench) that the shot was going in, and it did. In warm-ups, I made a shot just like that one. ... I knew it was good."
When asked to describe the method behind the madness of the winning shot that elevated his team to 4-0 on the young season, Illinois first-year head coach John Groce said: "We just stretched it out and I thought Abrams made a great decision. He got all the way to the rim, found his man in the corner and Richardson buried it. Anytime you get a road win, that's big. We got hit early, but we kept swinging, swinging and swinging."
After the replay officials confirmed the result, Spearman and some of his teammates fell to the floor in disbelief, battling the realization that the dream of upsetting a Big-10 opponent had morphed into a nightmare.
"I really wanted to win, but they came out and played great," said Spearman. "It was always my dream to beat Illinois, but sometimes dreams don't come true."
The Fighting Illini took advantage of 16 Hawaii turnovers, and pulled to within three points of the lead, 57-54, with just under five minutes remaining in the contest. Spearman counterpunched, driving to the basket and drawing contact that sent him to the charity stripe, where he made one of two free throws. After the squads traded short-range buckets, Richardson knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one, and Abrams added an easy layup on the ensuing possession to put Illinois ahead for the first time, 61-60, with 2:51 remaining.
"We made a few mistakes at the end, and it was just painful," Joaquim said. "The mistakes that we made hurt us again. We feel like we didn't lose; we feel like we're still playing right now. Everybody kept their head up, so we'll be ready for the next battle."
Paul caught fire when it counted, draining a short jumper and adding a 3-point dagger to put the Fighting Illini up 66-64 with 52.1 seconds to play. After Spearman missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, Hawaii leaned on its big man once again as Joaquim drained a fade-away jumper to tie the contest at 66 as time expired in regulation.
"In my short time here, that's as good an effort as I've seen out of a team for the entire length of a game," said Hawaii third-year head coach Gib Arnold. "I was extremely proud of (our) effort, and I've got nothing but good things to say about this team and how hard they played. They tried, and winning sometimes is a matter of something that you don't always control. But you do control your effort. With that said, in that locker room, we were mad, and we should be. But we're not sad, and we learned a lot."
Spearman led the way with 11 points and Joaquim chipped in 10 as the Rainbow Warriors built a 41-28 halftime lead. Brereton pulled down six rebounds and nailed one of Hawaii's three 3-pointers in the half as the team shot an efficient 48 percent from the field.
Paul poured in 12 points and Abrams led the way with 13 to keep the Fighting Illini in the game. The guard duo accounted for all but three of Illinois' points in the opening period as the visiting squad struggled to find a rhythm on offense, converting a collective 30 percent of its field-goal attempts.
Hawaii built an early 8-5 lead thanks in part to a rare 3-pointer from the six-foot, 10-inch Joaquim that energized the home crowd, while Paul kept Illinois close with a 3-point connection of his own.
The Rainbow Warriors then exploded with an 11-2 run, which was sparked by seven points from an aggressive Spearman, and built a 19-7 advantage with 12 minutes to play in the opening half. The Fighting Illini bounced back following the ensuing timeout, and put together an 8-2 run fueled by seven points from Abrams that cut the deficit to six.
Just as quickly as Illinois clawed its way back into the game, Hawaii answered with an 11-3 run to boost its lead to 14. The Rainbow Warriors limited the opposition to three free throws in the first half's final three minutes, and preserved a 13-point lead at halftime.
NOTES: Multiple NBA scouts were on hand to observe a handful of potential professional prospects, including Brandon Paul and Vander Joaquim. ... Hawaii fields the most diverse squad in the NCAA with players from six states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, Tennessee, Utah and Washington) and seven foreign countries (Angola, Australia, Croatia, Canada, Germany, Latvia and New Zealand).