By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) When Minnesota guard Austin Hollins stepped out of bounds with 14.6 seconds left in regulation, John Groce had a decision to make.
With two timeouts left and the score tied at 49, he was split on whether or not to call time and set up a final play.
“I was about 50/50, to be honest, whether I was going to call one or not,” Groce said.
That’s when Brandon Paul interjected.
“I said, no, let’s do iso and worst comes to worst, we’ll get a rebound,” Paul said after the game. “(Groce) said, ‘Let’s go get it.'”
Considering Paul had carried the Illini the entire game, it was probably a good idea for the head coach to listen to his senior guard.
Paul took the in-bound pass, dribbled to half-court, waited for the Gophers to show their defense and then went to work. He crossed over to his left, dribbled inside the three-point line and then pulled up from about 14-feet, calmly dropping in an ice-cold jumper over Austin Hollins at the buzzer.
“Tie game like that, you don’t want to let the defense set up,” Paul said. “Players make plays at the end of the day.”
And that’s exactly what Paul did Thursday, scoring 25 points in the much-anticipated Big Ten Tournament opener as the 8th-seeded Illini beat the 9th-seeded Gophers 51-49 at the United Center.
Long before he won the game at the buzzer, Paul started the game by scoring 10 of his team’s 13 points as the Illini built a 25-16 halftime lead. But the senior guard didn’t get much help and Minnesota went on a 25-11 second-half run, eventually building a five-point lead with 8:27 to go. Moments later, however, Paul scored six points in just 30 seconds to bring Illinois within one. And that’s when the Illini defense kicked back in gear and the Gophers went cold, failing to hit a field goal in the final six minutes of the game.
Paul finally got some help from backcourt-mate D.J. Richardson in the final minute as Richardson had three looks from behind the arc on Illinois’ second-to-last possession and hit the final one to tie the game with 48 seconds left. Minnesota then struggled to get the ball in-bounds and when the Gophers finally did, Austin Hollins stepped out of bounds after Paul backed him towards the sideline.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, that put the ball back in the hands of the deadliest player on the court.
“I didn’t want to lose,” Paul said. “We worked too hard to get to this point.”
Paul’s buzzer-beater was his 10th field goal of the day. The rest of his team had just eight.
After celebrating with his teammates, Paul’s attention quickly turned elsewhere, however. After an interview with the Big Ten Network, he quickly found his parents, who were in a hurry to jump in the car and leave. That’s because Brandon’s brother, Darius — the MAC Freshman of the Year — plays on Western Michigan and has a game tonight against Eastern Michigan at 9 p.m. ET in Cleveland, where the MAC Tournament is being held.
In other words, Cliff and Linda Paul — who Brandon dubbed “super parents” — have a lot of driving to do in the next 20 hours. At least Brandon got them on the road faster and didn’t make them sit through overtime.
“I love them with all my heart,” Paul said. “They do a lot for us. And I’ll probably see them again tomorrow.”
That’s right, after checking out Darius’ game in Cleveland tonight, the Pauls are set to drive back to Chicago overnight and make it to Brandon’s game against Indiana Friday at 11 a.m. CT.
The driving figures to be worth it. For Brandon, it means another showdown against Victor Oladipo and Indiana, who the Illini beat Feb. 7 in Champaign.
“I really don’t like Indiana at all,” Paul said.
But he does enjoy playing against Oladipo, who he said “gets me better every time I step on the court with him.”
And that’s a scary thought for the Hoosiers, because if Paul plays better than he did Thursday — or better than he did against IU Feb. 7 when he scored 21 — Indiana could be in trouble.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.