Nothing is ever easy in Ilini-land folks, so you might as well get used to it. After looking like a solid team in the first half at Ann Arbor last weekend, Illinois let Nebraska’s Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley go to town in the Assembly Hall. Talley and Gallegos both scored over 20 points, but Illinois still managed to pull away at the end, beating the Cornnhuskers 72-65.
It was an emotional night, as that’s how Senior Nights tend to be. Before the game, the crowd said goodbye and thank you to Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, as well as walk-on Kevin Berardini and transfer graduate student Sam McLaurin.
I was present for the time Paul and Richardson took the court against SIU Edwardsville on Nov. 3, 2009, and remember that game like it was yesterday. Paul had 22 points, which – correct me if I’m wrong – was the most points ever in a freshman debut. Richardson wasn’t far behind with 14 points of his own.
I’m not going to say that my memories of Richardson and Paul are rosy from start to finish, because they both had their ups and downs. Paul likes to turn the ball over, while Richardson went through long stretches of being trapped inside his head to the point where he couldn’t shoot a 3 to save his life. But all that is forgiven (even if it’s not forgotten) and I have to admit I’ll miss the little buggers. Griffey also showed signs of greatness throughout his career, but never truly popped. This season was probably his greatest yet, and that last-second shot vs. No. 1 Indiana will go down in Illini history; he has truly made his mark. We also won’t forget Paul’s 43 points vs. Ohio State last year.
Alright, so let’s get to the actual game. Talley and Gallegos just kept dropping 3′s (they combined for 8) and every time Illinois took the lead, Nebraska had the answer. It was hard to believe this was the same team we beat by more than 20 points in Lincoln. A last-second 3 by Tracy Abrams put the Illini up 35-32 at the half, but it was still too close for comfort.
Tied 57-57 with 5 minutes to go, the game was stressful to say the least. This was a must-win for Illinois, as a loss would’ve put their Tourney resume into question. Richardson made a 3, and Illinois was able to hold onto a small lead until the end. One of the 3′s by Gallegos came with 3 minutes to go, putting Nebraska within 3 points. Abrams was successful at the free throw line, and the Illini were finally able to pull away. It doesn’t matter how it happened, cause a win is a win.
Not only was it Senior Night at the Assembly Hall, but the AH was celebrating 50 years as the home of Illinois basketball. That meant timeouts were punctuated with memories galore from beating No. 1 Wake Forest to highlights of Frankie Williams to beating Magic Johnson’s No. 1 Michigan State team in 1979. John Groce dusted off the stylish orange blazer for the occasion.
The seniors did their job yesterday, and Paul led the team with 14 points. He also had a block, 5 assists and just 1 TO. Richardson contributed 13 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. Griffey didn’t exactly go out with a bang, with just 3 points and 2 rebounds. Nevertheless, the senior presence was felt.
Illinois will head to Iowa on Tuesday, and then after that they’ll play in Columbus on Sunday. It’d be nice to win one (if not both) of those games, but even if Illinois loses both it seems very, very likely that they will still have their dance cards punched this year. I can’t guarantee what they’ll do once they get to the Tourney, but it looks like Griffey, Paul and Richardson will make an appearance one last time before moving on to the next phase of their lives.
Illinois plays Iowa at 6:06 pm on Tuesday.