At the start of the season, Illinois coach John Groce presented players with a wristband that read “3-19-13.”
The start of the NCAA tournament.
But as Brandon Paul slumped over for several seconds on the court, just shy of adding to another memorable March moment in the tournament, he appeared to be regretting an oh-so-close miss of a Sweet 16.
“When the clock hit zero, it just kind of hit me faster than what I thought it would that was the last game of my college career,” Paul said. “I’m proud of the way we fought tonight.”
A clutch 3-pointer and a questionable call by the officials might steal some of the attention away from a tenacious Illini fight.
Shane Larkin, who had a quiet game prior, provided the Hurricanes with a 57-55 lead by hitting a big 3-pointer with 59.9 seconds left.
The Hurricanes regained possession after it appeared they had knocked the ball out of bounds after a missed shot by D.J. Richardson and made two free throws at the other end for a 59-55 lead. Miami’s Julian Gamble said he thought the ball went off teammate Kenny Kadji.
“I have two thoughts,” Groce said. “I thought the officiating Friday and today was tremendous. My second thought is you saw the same video that I did.”
Illinois continued to foul Miami in hopes of a game-stealing opportunity, but the Hurricanes made their final six free throws. Larkin finished with 17 points on 5-of- 12 shooting for the Hurricanes (29-6), who move on to face No. 3 seed Marquette in their first Sweet 16 since 2000.
For a team that preached resiliency, the Illini showed it on their biggest stage of the season at the Erwin Center.
“I don’t think it would have been an upset,” Abrams said. “We can beat those guys.”
They remained within upset-range of the Hurricanes and Paul supplied another highlight-worthy moment for his career, scoring 10 of his 18 points after halftime.
He hit back-to-back 3-pointers after starting 0-for-6 from long range and Tracy Abrams drove to tie the game 52-52. On a driving dunk by Paul, the Illini took a two-point lead off a 6-0 run with 3:22 remaining, and Abrams drew a charge to regain possession.
Both teams featured X-factors off the bench: Tyler Griffey for Illinois and Rion Brown for the Hurricanes.
Griffey, a senior, made the first four of his six 3-point attempts, finished with 12 points and kept the Illini in the game as the rest of the Illini went just 3 of 21 from beyond the perimeter. Richardson, also a senior, went just 1-for-10.
Brown scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting.
“It was a battle,” Groce said. “It was like a heavyweight boxing match out there. Unfortunately, we came out on the short end of it.”
The Illini still have not been to a Sweet 16 since Dee Brown and Deron Williams led them there in 2005.
But that is the step Groce has his eye on next.