Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini have had a rough week and a half, starting with their first loss of the season at Wake Forest, continuing to Rosemont with an overtime loss to lowly Northwestern, then staging what would have been the second-biggest comeback in Illinois basketball history against Maryland if they’d only held on to their two-point lead with under five seconds to go.
They finally managed a win against the Austin Peay Governors in a game so ugly it brought back flashbacks of Penn State 38, Illinois 33.
I don’t want to talk about Austin Peay on Throwback Thursday, and I’m sure you, fellow Illini fan, don’t want to hear about them (possibly ever again). Instead, I’ll take you back to a game reminiscent of our failed comeback bid against the Terrapins, but with an important twist.
The 2009-10 Fighting Illini were seen as a transitional team after being upset by Western Kentucky as a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament and losing Chester Frazier to graduation. Bruce Weber did, however, bring in freshman guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, who immediately provided a spark as the Orange and Blue won their first four games handily before heading to the Las Vegas Invitational.
Disaster ensued in the Sin City, and Illinois lost to Utah in the first round and followed that up with a humiliating loss to (in-state rival) Bradley University. The rattled Fighting Illini would then go on the road to face No. 18 Clemson in the B1G/ACC Challenge. This was, of course, pre-Nebraska, so instead of the B1G, the league was the BIG1T1EN.
A one-point contest at the ten-minute mark quickly became a blowout, and lengthy scoring droughts led to a 47-27 lead for the Tigers. The deficit would reach 23 early in the second half. Center Mike Tisdale and forward Mike Davis scored to begin a rally, but Demontez Stitt and Devin Booker would respond to push the lead back to 22. Paul hit a three before a 90 second scoreless drought for both teams, and then Paul hit another three. Illinois produced steals, drew fouls, and fought for defensive boards to cut the lead to ten before Clemson called a timeout to regroup.
However, the momentum had shifted to the Illini, and shortly after a Davis layup, point guard Demetri McCamey would steal the ball and dish it to Richardson, who drained a three while being fouled. Finally, after draining two free throws to tie the game, Brandon Paul took a steal to the house to take a 63-61 lead for Illinois.
There were still nine minutes to play at this point, and a Jerai Grant dunk finally broke Clemson’s dry spell. A battle ensued, and with 51 seconds to go and Illinois down one point, Weber called a timeout. Tisdale scored the go-ahead layup out of the timeout and then stuffed David Potter at the rim. Paul would then be fouled with the ball and make 1 of 2, and nine seconds wasn’t enough time for the Tigers to find an open shot as the Fighting Illini emerged with an improbable 76-74 win.
Davis would lead the team in points (22) and rebounds (9), while the two freshman guards Paul and Richardson combined to score 34. Demetri McCamey was limited to 2 points but provided 7 assists.
This year’s edition of the Fighting Illini also contains some young guard talent. Who will be the Brandon Paul of this group?