There was no voting for 2013's top Illini moment. This year will end without a poll. Or a list. Or a survey. Seldom do tens of thousands of people perfectly and silently agree with one another, but then again, seldom does life produce a perfect formula. And the Indiana game at Assembly Hall last season was perfect.
Of course, I remember where I was for the game--corner bleachers, to the left of the band, second row to the top. But I also remember what I heard, what I thought and what I felt, not just at the end when Tyler Griffey clinched it for the Illini, but throughout the whole game. Remember: that game and that conference season did not start well. Illinois had lost seven of their first nine conference games, including a home loss to Northwestern, after starting the season 13-1. In the game, they trailed Indiana by 12 at halftime and, still, by 11 with only 6:27 remaining in the ballgame.
At some point during the first 34 minutes, my friend next to me shook his head and muttered, "A must-win at home. At home. And we're playing like garbage." He could have said the statement during almost any February home game of the past four years and, just like February 7, 2013, no one would have answered him. The statement was tired, and agreeing with it, again and again, hurt. It was true. They were playing like garbage.
Perhaps most upsetting was the notion that this season was different. We had John Groce. We won Maui. We went into Gonzaga and won. This collapse, this depressing, awful, unstoppable conference collapse could not be happening again. Yet, every game, there it was, as bright as the orange.
This particular slide started with a bad loss at Purdue, then continued with home losses against Minnesota and Northwestern. Then Wisconsin beat us twice. Michigan stomped us good. Michigan St. edged out a victory. And now, Indiana
Then Brandon Paul got fouled. He knocked down both free throws. Indiana responded with a basket of their own, but then Sam McLaurin got a layup. Then the defense stepped in with a Joseph Bertrand steal, followed by a bucket from D.J. Then D.J. again. Then D.J. again.
In a matter of minutes, the entire feel of the season flipped and hung in flux, waiting on the result of the game to either complete the flip, or return to it's original, repetitive place. D.J. Richardson gritted his teeth at the Indiana offense and urged the crowd to get loud. They complied. Brandon Paul stood tall, getting to the free throw line and burying both shots to tie the game with under a minute to play. John Groce screamed. Everyone screamed with him.
With less than 10 seconds to go, Indiana had possession. Victor Oladipo, arguably the best player on the No. 1 team and the soon-to-be second overall selection in the NBA Draft, dribbled at the top of the key, waiting for the clock to wind down before attempting a game winning shot. D.J. got in his way. He pressured Oladipo into a poor dribble, picked up the loose ball and took off toward the hoop, toward the win. He covered the length of the floor in four seconds, gathered himself and laid the ball toward the backboard. But Oladipo hustled back and swatted the shot out of bounds.
Two days after the game, here's what I wrote regarding the following moments:
The block brought us back down to Earth. We had the perfect side view of DJ's last second attempt. We saw it leave his hands. That ball was going in. Oladipo had saved the game and 0.9 seconds wasn't enough time to do anything. "Boys, we're going to overtime," my friend said to me as he put his hand on my shoulder.
AND THEN BEFORE I COULD PROCESS A SINGLE THOUGHT, TYLER GRIFFEY HAD BEATEN NO. 1 INDIANA.
Storylines tend to overstate and sensationalize, tossing cliches around easily, such as, "You couldn't script it any better." But in my life as a fan, that cliche only applies to Illinois-Indiana. The equation was perfect. Every variable is necessary, stretched to it's fullest potential, and the chills are oh, so genuine. Illinois' yearly pattern of failure was broken on a shot by a much-maligned senior, set up by the heart of two other maligned seniors, changing the course of the season, of John Groce's first year, and potentially of the future of Illini basketball. Everything after that game came easier. There was more confidence. There was more pride.
And it all came against the archrival, who just happened to be the best team in college basketball.
When Indiana and Illinois tip off this afternoon, the formula won't be the same and the potential for greatness won't be as high. But the memories will rush back, for both teams and for every fan. And if all else goes wrong, it'll be okay. We'll always have that perfect, perfect night.
Revisit Indiana-Illinois Champaign Room posts.
- Recap: Illinois 74, Indiana 72
- The Indiana Game: I Was There
- Violent Tyler Griffey Murders Indiana (Layup video)
- Highlights: Illinois-Indiana