It didn’t take long for the fireworks to ignite at the United Center as Illinois senior Brandon Paul hit a jump shot at the buzzer to beat Minnesota 51-49 to open the Big Ten Tournament.
“I didn’t want to lose,” Paul said after his late game heroics. “We worked too hard. This team has so much character and the coaching staff, they got us right for this one, as they do for all the games. So my mindset was to be aggressive.”
Paul finished with 25 points on 10-16 shooting, scoring almost half of his team’s points.
Illinois jumped out to a 21-9 lead on a dunk by center Nnanna Egwu with 5:53 left in the first half. Golden Gophers junior Austin Hollins led a vicious Minnesota comeback with the Golden Gophers reclaiming the lead with 10:23 remaining in the game. Hollins finished with a team-high 16 points.
The turning point of the game came with just under two minutes left in the contest with Illinois trailing Minnesota 49-46. Illinois missed four shots on the possession but clawed their way to each loose ball until senior D.J. Richardson hit a game-tying three-pointer with 47 seconds left.
“It’s fitting that two seniors in Brandon [Paul] and D.J. [Richardson] made those plays,” Illini coach John Groce said. “But the offensive rebound effort was also tremendous by our guys on the possession that led to D.J.’s three. It put us in a position where we had a chance to win the game.”
Illinois will move on to face the No.1 seeded Indiana Hoosiers in a rematch of their February 7th contest that ended ironically in a buzzer beater win for the Illini.
With the loss, Minnesota drops their third straight contest and may be looking on the outside in on the NCAA tournament bubble.