CHICAGO-To most IU fans, Illinois’s Tyler Griffey may represent the Hoosier loss this season that shouldn’t have been.
On Feb. 7 in Champaign, Ill., Brandon Paul found Griffey wide-open under the basket off an out-of-bounds play with just two seconds to play and the game tied. Unguarded, Griffey easily dropped in the game-winning bucket to take down then-No. 1 IU 74-72.
Friday at the United Center in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, Griffey did his best to pull the Fighting Illini back from a 14-point deficit they took into the locker room at halftime.
But this time around, the Hoosiers didn’t crumble under the charging Illinois offense, fending off every 3-point strike and move onto the third round after the 80-64 victory.
Back in February, the Hoosiers led Illinois by as many as 14 points in the second half and held a 10-point lead with close to four minutes to play before poor offensive rhythm and turnovers led to IU’s demise.
This time, though, Illinois began striking a bit earlier, as Griffey drained his first bucket of the game, a 3-pointer, to open the second half, cutting IU’s lead to 11 just nine seconds into the second half.
Illinois’s Tracy Abrams followed suit just two minutes later, as the Fighting Illini began to fall into a rhythm that they struggled to find in the first half.
In Champaign, it was two late back-to-back 3-pointers from D.J. Richardson that helped erase IU’s double-digit lead, but the Hoosiers fought shot-for-shot this time around.
The teams traded buckets for the next several minutes until the Hoosiers got some fire off the bench from junior forward Will Sheehey and sophomore guard Remy Abell.
With 15:40 left, Sheehey was left unguarded on the right wing, and freshman guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell found the recipient of the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award in the corner to get IU’s lead back up to 13.
Abell kept the lead there with a 3-pointer with 12:48 to go.
Illinois Coach John Groce felt like his team came ready to fight in the second half on the offensive end, but he couldn’t coach his players past the unexpectedly consistent shooting from IU’s bench beyond the arc in the second half.
“I thought Abell gave them positive contributions, made a couple jumpers, which typically (he) doesn’t do that,” Groce said. “Those are big plays. Sheehey makes two 3’s. He’s whatever he is, a 32 percent 3-point shooter. Those are two big shots.”
Richardson tried to spark his team with into another second half run after answering Abell’s trey just over a minute later, but senior forward Christian Watford’s trusty 3-point shot erased any chance at gaining momentum on the Hoosiers.
“Watford made a couple, and he’s been really good all year from three,” Groce said. “He buried a couple. The last one was a real dagger that he made.”
The Fighting Illini crawled back within single digits for less than two minutes after two Richardson free throws with 8:17 remaining, but another upset win wasn’t in the cards for Groce and his team Friday afternoon.
Watford hit his second 3-pointer of the game with 5:33 to play to put IU back ahead 13 points, and from there on, the IU lead never dipped into the single digits and grew as large as 20.
The senior from Birmingham, Ala. said that he and his teammates learned a lot from their late second half collapse to Illinois a month ago, and with the help of a rhythm from several players from behind the arc Friday, the Hoosiers prevented a second upset this season by the Fighting Illini.
“We learned from that game,” Watford said. “We looked at the film last night, and we looked at some things. We know we shouldn’t have done some things. We let one get away. We knew what they do, and we kept grinding it out and kept playing.”