Even when it is reeling, Illinois seems to find March magic in Chicago.
Brandon Paul did so in style.
Paul nailed a fadeaway jumper as time expired to give eighth-seeded Illinois a 51-49 win over Minnesota in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
Getting the ball with 14.9 seconds left after a Minnesota turnover, Paul never gave it up. With the clock winding down he took a couple dribbles and rose up for a 15-footer over a Gophers defender.
"In that situation you just have to see what the defense is giving you," said Paul, a senior from Warren High School in Gurnee. "I've been in those situations."
Illinois (22-11) advances to play top-seeded and third-ranked Indiana -- a team who, coincidentally, the Illini also beat on a buzzer-beater by Tyler Griffey when the Hoosiers were ranked No. 1. Illinois had limped into Chicago losers of two straight, and three of four, but again found March momentum at the United Center. The Illini have never lost a first-round game played in Chicago.
"We've worked too hard to get to this point," said Paul, who hit 10 of 16 field goals and scored 25 points. "We've had some ups and downs this season but this team has so much character."
Illinois, which started the season 12-0 before going 8-10 in the bloodbath that is the Big Ten, found itself matched with an enigmatic partner in Minnesota. The Gophers were 15-1 and ranked No. 8 at one point before their own late slide. The two teams traded wins on each other's home court before matching up again Thursday.
True to their dual identities, Illinois used a 19-2 run to get out to a 12-point lead, led 25-16 at halftime, then watched as Minnesota (20-12) answered with its own 16-2 spurt to surge ahead 38-34.
Illinois still trailed 49-46, but on a never-give-up possession, the Illini rebounded 4 straight misses. On the fifth try, D.J. Richardson, 1-for-11 up to that point, buried a tying 3-pointer with 48 seconds left.
"My teammates kept on finding me and I kept shooting it," Richardson said. "I'm a shooter. I knew one of them was going to fall and it finally did."
On Minnesota's ensuing possession, Sam McLaurin pressured Austin Hollins into stepping on the sidelines after catching the inbounds pass, the Gophers' 19th turnover -- fourth on inbounds plays.
"We have a real issue with taking care of the ball," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, whose team led the Big Ten in turnovers committed. "When you turn it over 19 times it puts a lot of pressure on you defensively. Too much, I guess."
Hollins scored 16 points and Andre Hollins 13 for Minnesota.
Illinois coach John Groce, with two timeouts to burn, eschewed using them on the final possession, putting the ball in the hands of his senior.
Groce knows a thing or two about March magic, having won NCAA Tournament games as a No. 13 and No. 14 seed at Ohio.
Groce's first Illinois team seems to have a flair for the big stage, too. The Illini won the Maui Classic and own wins over two potential No. 1 seeds in Indiana and Gonzaga. The down side of a roller coaster season is a 2-7 Big Ten start and 1-3 finish sandwiched around a five-game winning streak.
"These seniors have been through an awful lot," Groce said. "I'm really proud of their resiliency. They're aware that some people had written them off. That put a chip on their shoulder."