It’s a bad year to be number one, but a great year to be part of the Fight Illini. Thursday, February 7th, the number one ranked, 20-2 (8-1 Big Ten) Indiana Hoosiers showed up in Champagne, Illinois with the intentions of making a statement that they the number one team in the land for legitimate reasons. The only problem was that they were playing the 15-8 (3-7 Big Ten) Illinois Fighting Illini last night and not chumps. Admittedly, it was later when I flipped to this game; towards the end of the first half right as Indiana had just established a 15 point lead. Illinois had called a timeout, and I didn’t think too much of a number one commanding this game as the Illini had really fallen off after that aggressive 12-0 start. The Hoosiers had smiles and laughter on their faces and it appeared to me that they had all but won that game in their minds. I watched through the end of the first half and then continued channel surfing to other games on. As I turned it back on with roughly 4:00 to play, Illinois was trailing by 8. Considering over the past month how many number ones had fallen from grace, and the fact that Illinois had trimmed that the Hooisers’ lead to single digit numbers, I watched on the slim chance that the rankings would be shuffled yet again by the time the buzzer sounded. Of all the great comeback games I’ve ever witnessed, I don’t think I could have even imagined the wild ending I was about to behold.
With under 3:00 left to play, Illinois called a full timeout to prep for what would be one of the best finishes in a comeback game I’ve ever seen in college ball. Immediately after resuming, the Illini’s D.J. Richardson popped his 3rd 3-pointer of the night inching Illinois within 5 points of the number one team in the nation. Indiana pushed back but missed a short jumper then losing the battle for the rebound. After the clutch defensive play, D.J. Richardson drained another 3 pointer from the bottom of my TV screen and it was then that I realized Illinois just would not go away. Indiana pushed back to the offensive end again, but big Christian Watford was unable to make the jumper and Illinois grabbed the rebound prompting a time out from Indiana.
Sitting on the edge of my seat, I had to calm myself to realize just how much time was left on the clock and reel myself back in. Indiana was number one for a reason and I had to give them that respect, but then again, Illinois could return to that 12-0 form without warning and possibly run away with this game. Either way, the electric feeling I had just watching it on TV was something I enjoyed and it made me wish I was there.
Following the time out, Richardson erased the butterflies in the stomachs of Illinois fans and replaced it with sheer joy as sunk a jumper tying the game at 70 apiece. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, answered back with a layup at just under a minute left, and Illinois took another timeout. Oladipo fouled Illinois’ Brandon Paul who took full advantage of the opportunity tying the game again from the foul line at 72-72 with 35 seconds to play. Indiana ended up on the offensive one last time where Oladipo was turned over the ball right next Richardson who picked it up and drove as hard as his legs would carry him. It looked as though his race was only against the buzzer as he drove past the only defender between him and hole. As quickly Richardson put the shot up Oladipo recovered from the other end of the floor and sent it flying into the stands. It looked more like a home run shot than a blocked shot it was hit so hard.
The clock showed .09 time left as both teams positioned themselves for the final play. Illinois’ Brandon Paul held the ball waiting for his opening and then it happened — Tyler Griffey broke to the basket and no one guarded him as he put up the uncontested, unblocked shot to win the game and Illinois (David) had officially stunned Indiana (Goliath) on the home court. I’m pretty sure the entire student body rushed the floor and the announcers were inaudible as the celebration took hold in Assembly Hall.
Undoubtedly, this was one of the best, and strangest finishes I’ve ever seen in college ball. Obviously, any loyal Hoosier sees the game in a much more harsh light than those that sport the blue and orange, but no matter what school you favor, it’s important to remember that the season isn’t over and March will bring us the real champion. As for right now, Illini fans have a highly publicized, recent memory of a sweet, sweet victory over a bitter division rival.