It’s no secret that the late Weber years and subsequent Groce years of Illinois basketball were marked by frustration and disappointment. The program was on a downward spiral after decades of sustained success that culminated in a 29-1 regular season and national runner-up finish in 2005.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some great memories and signature games that came out of that period. For many, Tyler Griffey’s buzzer beater to knock off #1 Indiana in 2013 probably sits at the top of the list. Some may look back on College Gameday’s visit to Assembly Hall and ensuing Illini upset over 5th ranked Michigan State in 2010. Others will turn to Brandon Paul’s 43-point performance against #5 Ohio State in 2012.
But I always remember a non-conference showdown back in 2012—John Groce’s first year—where the then veteran-laden Illini went into “The Kennel” and ran away with an 85-74 victory over the 10th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Let’s take a look back at that performance, Brandon Paul’s dominance and all.
It’s Saturday, December 8, 2012. A 9:00pm central time tip-off on ESPN2.
John Groce remains undefeated as head coach of the Fighting Illini, with his team all the way up to #13 in the latest AP Poll following a 9-0 start to begin his Illini coaching career. Illinois has already won the Maui Invitational crown after a dominant showing that included a 30-point victory over USC and a 17-point victory over Butler in the championship game.
Now, their toughest test awaits: a trip to Spokane, Washington to take on #10 Gonzaga, who also sit at 9-0 on the young season. The Bulldogs are well-equipped with future first-round draft pick Kelly Olynyk alongside fellow All-WCC players Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos. It’s the final year of a 4-year series between the two programs from 2009-2012 (can we bring this series back by the way?).
Gonzaga came out hot from the field and took control of the game early, jumping out to a quick 12-3 lead, impelling Groce to burn an early timeout.
While the Bulldogs built leads of up to 11 points midway through the first half, the Illini were able to claw their way back in it thanks to their pesky defense, forcing 12 first-half Gonzaga turnovers. Offensively, they were led by Brandon Paul’s 18 points in the half, including 3-6 shooting from 3-point range. A Tyler Griffey fadeaway jumper at the buzzer evened the score at 41 a piece at halftime.
The start of the second half was a high-scoring affair that saw the Illini take a 53-48 lead less than three minutes in. Illinois started to gain some real momentum shortly thereafter and really silenced the crowd after DJ Richardson set up a 4-point play with a 3 and foul (although missed the free throw) to go up 68-59 with 8:49 remaining.
Amidst Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu each picking up their 5th fouls and being forced to take a seat leaving Illinois very thin in the frontcourt, Olynyk made a pair of free throws to draw within three at 73-70 with 3:42 remaining. The student section that sat nearly on top of the floor were buzzing. The Illini were in danger of letting a potential marquee win slip away late.
Spoiler alert: that is not what happened.
Brandon Paul added to an already sensational performance by closing out the ballgame for the Illini. With just under three minutes to go, he drove right into the chest of the All-American Olynyk for an and-1 play to go up 78-71.
After two Tracy Abrams free throws, Paul buried a dagger 3 from the top of the key to send the Zags fans towards the exits and secure a statement win for the program, moving them to 10-0.
BP3 finished with 35 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks while shooting an extremely efficient 10-16 from the floor, 5-9 from 3, and 10-11 from the free throw line.
“We didn’t have a guy who could guard him one-on-one basically,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said postgame.
As Illinois’s ranking reached the Top 10 the following Monday, the nation started to take notice of this veteran group, one that had been through many ups and downs over their Fighting Illini careers and—so it appeared—were finally putting it together.
Unfortunately, this would end up being the high point of the 2012-13 season which ended in familiar fashion: a subpar 8-10 conference record and Round of 32 exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Regardless, this was an incredibly fun game to watch and one that should not be forgotten in the memories of Illini Nation.
For highlights from the game, check out the link below: