In the game of basketball, sometimes all it comes down to is one shot. It might sound cliché, but one bounce of the ball, one inch, one moment can change an entire season for not only a team, but for a city, or an entire school. When the ball came out of senior Tyler Griffey’s finger tips and the buzzer sounded, a team in utter desperation finally climbed out of their hole and stood atop the college basketball nation, slaying the No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers.
It’s only been about a year and two months since Indiana had been in the Illini’s position, with Christian Watford hitting a buzzer-beater jumper to upset the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats. The Hoosiers had been a team that rotted in basketball mediocrity for years, but that night they turned a page and turned their entire program around.
Now Illinois has flipped the script. They look to put a troubled few years behind them and string their one moment of basketball ecstasy into success for years to come. But it won’t be easy. Their road to redemption may have started against Indiana, but their next road stop on the Highway to Hell that is the Big Ten is in Minneapolis, where the hungry Golden Gophers look to rain on the Illini’s parade this Sunday.
Perhaps no one had a bigger and a more unexpected night then Griffey, who put an end to an 0-20 three-point slump that extended for eight games. The shot that everyone will remember that’s been practically played on loop across the University of Illinois campus was his game-winner, but the shot that really got it going for Griffey was the three-pointer that snapped his slump.
“Once the first three went down in the game, I just kind of said to myself finally,” Griffey said. “I’ve been putting a lot of work before and after practice getting shots up, so it was a good confidence booster for me and hopefully I can expand it and take it from there.”
While Griffey has garnered most of the national attention, and deservedly so, a player that deserves as much or more credit is fellow senior D.J. Richardson. Richardson scored eight straight points down the stretch and finished with 23 points to help get the W for the Illini.
“I’ve just been shooting shots I’m capable of making, it’s really not anything special I’ve been doing,” Richardson said. “I just gotta stay confidence and do other things for the team. Not just shooting, still being a leader, holding guys accountable for certain things on the court, bring us together when we need to stay together, and help each get better at practice.”
The Illini have been prone to taking breaks after big wins this season, including closer than expected wins over Gardner-Webb and Norfolk State after victories over Butler and Gonzaga, respectively. Richardson believes their carry over comes down to one thing, maturity.
“Throughout the season we’ve played big teams and we’ve won games like that and we came out flat the next game,” Richardson said. “We just gotta be mature and come out ready to play tomorrow.”
Two games in four days are never easy in the Big Ten, but back-to-back matchups vs. No. 1 Indiana and No. 18 Minnesota on the road is just brutal. The last match-up between these two teams didn’t turn out too well for the Illini, as they were pushed around on their own home floor in a 84-67 blowout win for the Golden Gophers. Illinois gave up all 84 points to the Minnesota starters, including senior Trevor Mbawke who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and sophomore guard Joe Coleman who exploded for a career-high 29 points. Coleman especially seemed to effortlessly create fast breaks and coast in for easy finishes.
“They really beat us in transition,” Griffey said. “We’re gonna try to get back, we’re the only team in the Big Ten to get the most offensive rebounds against them so we kind of beat them up on the backboard so we’re gonna try to continue to do that.”
As the Illini head to Minneapolis, they’re facing a much different Minnesota team then the first time these two faced. The last time around Minnesota had won 11 straight games, with their lone loss coming against Duke. Now, the Golden Gophers have lost five of their last seven games, with their only victories coming against Nebraska and Iowa at home. For Illinois, ironically enough, their momentum heading into this game isn’t all that much different than the last time, when they were coming off of a victory against No. 8 Ohio State. Senior guard Brandon Paul believes the difference this time around is they are more relaxed.
“I think just having more fun makes you stay locked into the game,” Paul said. “You’re not thinking as much, you’re just going out there and playing ball. Once you make a mistake you forget about that and make the next play.”
Despite Minnesota’s troubles, they’ve won 12 of their last 13 home games, with their lone loss coming against No. 5 Michigan.
With only eight regular season games left for the Illini, each game will continue to only get more important as the NCAA tournament approaches. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi points out that in the past 10 seasons only nine teams have overcome a losing conference record and still earned an at-large bid. The only team to have an at-large selection and finish more than two games below .500 in its conference was Iowa State in 1992, who finished 5-9 in the Big 12. Sitting at 3-7 in the Big Ten, Illinois will have to keep the ball rolling to remain on the NCAA tournament bubble. A win at Minnesota should do the trick and could possibly earn them their first top 25 ranking since January 17th.
It’s been their motto all season long, TNT, Toughness N’ Togetherness. They’re a team that’s took their fair share of knockout blows all season long but they’re still lunging forward and they’re as dangerous as ever.
“Being tough and together is something that has definitely been our focus,” Paul said. “We haven’t cracked yet, we obviously had a rough stretch the past month or so but I think we’re just gonna continue to fight and staying together and guys building on each other’s progress it’s something that’s definitely been good for us.”
It took one shot to keep the Illini’s hopes alive, but it will take a whole lot more for them to continue their winning ways.