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The Big Five February 7, 2013

In the final week of January in 2008 – we had all just returned from the Rose Bowl, and the basketball season began to tank quickly – Illinois invited Jack Cooley from Glenbrook South for a visit. We had recently offered the big man, as had Wisconsin and Notre Dame, and I had a debate with some friends. Were were really pursuing Cooley, or were we trying to force Tyler Griffey’s hand? Was this a visit, or a “hey Tyler, we have Jack Cooley coming in this weekend so if you want that last big-man scholarship…”

Whatever it was, it worked. The Thursday before Cooley’s visit, Griffey committed to Illinois. Cooley canceled his visit, verballed to Notre Dame the following week, and that was that.

Living in the St. Louis area, I was thrilled. I always love seeing STL area kids coming to Champaign. These are all my guys, but for the last four years, Tyler has been 15% more my guy. Malcolm Hill will be 15% more my guy. I don’t know why I do this, but something about people saying “going up to Champaign” instead of “down” means something to me.

There’s a bar in Wildwood where Tyler is from – Indigo Joe’s is the name, I believe – that has a Tyler Griffey Illini jersey on the wall. I don’t even like the food that much, but I go there as often as I can. You hang an orange jersey on the wall in Tiger land, you have my business.

So because of all of that, Tyler has been my dude these last four years. When he hit those threes against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tourney as a freshman, I was ecstatic. When he scored 18 at Michigan last year but then only played 8 minutes in the Purdue game, I was furious. When he hit those two dagger threes against Butler in Maui I was thrilled. That’s my guy. The childhood thing of having a favorite player never left me, I guess (see: Hawthorne, Terry).

But then Tyler fell into this tremendous slump. It was so incredibly hard to watch. Nothing would drop. He looked tentative on both ends. It was cover-your-eyes bad at times.

So in the second half tonight, when we were down by double digits, ESPN showed a graphic listing Jack Cooley and all of his double-doubles for Notre Dame this season. As the announcers talked about Cooley, I let it slip to my son. “We might have had Cooley at Illinois, but we wanted Griffey instead.”

A simple comment, sure, but I felt awful as soon as I said it. I stick by Griffey for 3.5 seasons and then wish for Jack Cooley in the final two months? What? Once my guy, always my guy. Forget I ever said anything. Now that the slump is broken, go hit another three, Tyler (he did). And then he grabbed a big rebound (YAY). And then he missed a bunny (EEK). And he told John Groce “we got this” when Groce was wandering too close to a technical.

And then that happened.

Eddie Johnson’s jumper.
Nick Anderson’s 35 footer.
Andy Kauffman’s three.
Deron Williams’ three.
And Tyler Griffey’s layup.

In my lifetime, those are the Big Five. Those are the remember-where-you-were moments. There are others, of course – Frankie at the buzzer to beat Ohio State, Marcus Griffin and the inbounds play against Wisconsin, Cory Bradford’s three against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament – but given the circumstances, those are the Big Five. The first one knocked off #1 Michigan State. The second one shoved a dagger through Bobby Knight and 17,000 stunned Hoosier fans. The third one was a kick to Bruce Pearl’s face. The fourth one was the greatest moment in Illini history and sent us to the Final Four. And the fifth one knocked off #1 Indiana in Champaign at the buzzer to cap a 13-2 run to close the game.

And Tyler Griffey forever gets his name on that list. I just can’t find words to describe how excited that makes me. All of that hard work, all of those struggles, all of the turmoil with his former coach not trusting him and benching him at his first mistake, and now a place in Illini history.

And you know what makes it even sweeter? The guy who really won the game for us. The other guy that had been through so much turmoil the last few seasons. The guy who was Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten but then struggled to regain that form. Tyler’s layup will be remembered, but DJ won that game.

Those last 12 points will forever be etched in my mind. John Groce calls a timeout and sets up a double screen for DJ to take a three. BANG. We dump it down to Sam McLaurin who kicks it to DJ in the corner. BANG. DJ gets the ball and takes a step-back 18 footer for the tie. BANG. And then after Oladipo gives Indiana the lead, Brandon Paul gets fouled and hits the ugliest free throw I’ve ever seen in my life (I think it went backboard, rim, rim, backboard, rim, in). Brandon swishes the second free throw, and then Oladipo has a chance to win it. BANG, DJ gets the steal, gets blocked on the layup, and, well, then that happened.

And the lineup on the floor for all of that? 5th-year senior Sam McLaurin. Senior Tyler Griffey. Senior Brandon Paul. Senior DJ Richardson. And 4th year junior Joseph Bertrand. The much-maligned 2009 recruiting class (plus McLaurin) getting a moment in the sun. On ESPN. Against Indiana. #1 Indiana. And a layup at the buzzer followed by an Orange Krush court rush.

I wonder if those empty seats in A section will regret staying home.

illiniranger February 7th, 2013

Amazing. I’m just drinking everything in my house and reading everything i can on the internet. an all-timer. just… WOW!!!

bbirkhead February 7th, 2013

Being another fellow Illini from St. Louis I agree completely with what you said about the special thing of saying “going up”. And Hill is going to be my guy as well.

bkenny February 7th, 2013

As I was sitting there watching the floor rush on TV, I couldn’t help but think of how upset Tyler Griffey must have made the EVENT STAFF.

bkenny February 7th, 2013

I’ve also watched the last basket about 200 times on loop, my favorite part is watching shirtless guy run across almost instantaneously, followed closely by the guy running up to Griffey for the hug. Waford’s reaction is also great as Griffey is receiving the pass.

ATOillini February 7th, 2013


IlliNYC February 7th, 2013

I wasn’t going to watch the game. The team has been so tough to watch. And now I remember why this can be so fun. Just when you least expect it, you get a moment like tonight.

Steve February 7th, 2013

Most fun I’ve had in quite some time. O M G !!
Not an absolutely beautifully played game, but rather a well played, hard fought game. The stats on Indiana playing well offensively and losing . . . wonderful !!
Hoosiers can’t say we caught ‘em cold. We caught ‘em, but not cold.
Tyler and DJ were terrific and getting better as the game went on.
Sorry it ended, we want to watch them climb the ladder further.
Hoping there is no setback on Sunday.
I – L – L !

mlp94595 February 7th, 2013

So much for the smug looks Zeller and Sheehey were spouting. Zeller was so proud of himself when he got Nnanna fouled out on a acting job.

I’m also so happy for Tyler and DJ that they played well. I noticed in the first half that Griffey stayed in more than his normal turns. Maybe the coaches saw something. Let’s hope their confidence stays.

Joe John February 8th, 2013

I didnt notice Paul did actually bank in that free throw. I was fast forwarding on DVR and it was about a 10 pt game thru out the 2nd half. Then it gets to 70-68 and I’m like ok..i’ll watch. 70-70. Then 72-70. Then 72-72. Then when DJ gets the steal it looked like it was going to be the exact finish as the Oklahoma State-Baylor game the other nite. Looking at the box score it really is amazing Illinois won. Indiana shot 50%, 9-17 on 3s, and 13-14 from the line and still lost. Door is open to get to 7-11 in conference, but wow that will be the must bubble of bubble places for NCAA tourney hopes. They simply need to beat Purdue and Northwestern. Lose either and its back to being dead. But this win makes up for the home Northwestern loss and puts a pulse back into the season for now.

Joe John February 8th, 2013

And Sheehey’s taunting turned the game IMO. Indiana really plays good basketball, but a loss like this and you have to wonder whether they can put it altogether to win the entire thing. I cant think of any recent championship teams that have blown 70-61 leads with under 3:30 left.

Robert February 8th, 2013

Crean still has that “can’t win on the road” hanging around his neck. He was supposed to get rid of it this season, but he just lost to Illinois, and these are their final four Big Ten road games:
at Ohio State
at Michigan State
at Minnesota
at Michigan

Illinigrad February 8th, 2013

Griffey is the man!

skippy February 8th, 2013

Long time lurker, first time poster. Be gentle. Your blog captures my thoughts of our Illini almost always to a T. Calling this a Top 5 Illini BBall moment is exactly right. Want to feel even better? Watch the GIF of the last play on SBB (maybe most have this) and watch Sheehy walk off the floor. You will enjoy…..Watch from the other angle and see Bertrand’s leap and you will feel even better…

Thanks so much for your blog that gives me so much enjoyment.

DennyMac February 8th, 2013

Someone has mention the 2002 game at Minnesota. 20 seconds to play, down 4 pts without the ball and Bradford hits a three after a steal then Frank makes a runner after a Gopher turnover to win with 2 seconds left. AMAZING FINISH!

bkenny February 8th, 2013

Luther Head @ Purdue another one for the “also receiving votes” category

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 8th, 2013

Did anyone else watch that final basket and think “That’s totally a play that we would have normally have done to us. Likely by Indiana”? Hard to say for certain, but it looks like Zeller blew that defensive coverage. I mean, I’m not sure who else should be covering “bunnyland” right next to the hoop other than your 7-footer. We really ratcheted up the defense at the end. And even got screwed on a couple defensive calls (BP stripping some candystriper going to the hoop cleanly and they called a foul). Such hustle, including the last steal.
I still have no idea how we won. I watched it, but it’s not computing. 13-2 run? To close the game? Against #1 Indiana? By brain won’t accept the data. Man, I cannot figure these guys out. But I’ll enjoy them while they are hot.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 8th, 2013

BTW I love that we beat them on a simple (and WIDE OPEN) layup. I mean, long 3-pointers and tough clutch shots are great and all, but the “2nd-gradeness” of the open bunny is way more embarrassing to IU.

thegoah February 8th, 2013

Why is no one talking about how JG drank Cream’s milkshake? How many points did we score off of inbound plays? The last play wasn’t the first time.

Lou-a-villini February 8th, 2013

While Chicagoans go “down” and St. Louisans/Metro Easters go “up,” it’s always nice to have a few Peorians go “over” to Champaign. (Glad the Frankie @ Minnesota moment was mentioned above.) Great game, DJ and the other seniors (and fourth year junior)! Now I need to go watch that video a few hundred more time to catch all of the reactions your referencing. Perhaps Robert will add it on a loop….. :)

agiganti February 8th, 2013

lost in the shuffle is at times the worst passing guard on our team NOT forcing a pass to the hottest player on the court and patiently waiting for Tyler to bust open then hitting him with a bounce pass.
also, watching Crean standing there waiting for the officials confirm it made up just a little for how he made bruce wait for the handshake in Bloomington.

Lou-a-villini February 8th, 2013

BTW, a 5-3 finish (maybe 6-2) would not be too much to ask. Would it?

SouthernIllini February 8th, 2013

Gosh, how much impact can this game have on the season, the players, and even Groce’s career?!

If the Illini use this as a jumpstart to a good season finish, you’ll continue to see more and more buy-in from everyone on Coach Groce. Griffey’s confidence is restored. Richardson finally becomes the cold-blooded sniper we knew he could be. Paul learns to play just a little smarter and not let the intensity level fade.

Now if they can get Nnanna to stop hedging so MUCH on those ball screens, maybe he stays in the game longer! Though honestly I really do love all the things McClaurin does for the team. He’s the epitome of the glue guy. Works hard, plays sound defense, tenacious rebounder, mature player.

Maybe we’ve finally found the rotation that can work, involving Paul, Richardson, Abrams, Griffey, McClaurin, Egwu, JoBert, and Griffey.

SouthernIllini February 8th, 2013

Ugh, just read the SI article about the game, and they just talked about how Indiana gave the game away….

Listen fools! Indiana played pretty well! They missed 1 free throw, they shot 50% from the field, and they defended pretty well. This is the most encouraging thing about the whole thing. Indy played well and we STILL beat them!

GMAW February 8th, 2013

Joe John:

Have you paid your $100 to ab75 yet? I am happy to facilitate that. Presumably you don’t plan to welch on your bet.


illiniranger February 8th, 2013

i was stunningly hungover this morning. i watched the game in a bar/restaurant with my wife and some friends last night. after the game we just started pounding them. then i had to be at work at 7 this AM. totally worth it.

Illinifan4eva February 8th, 2013

I actually love it Joe Joen has been complimentary and optimistic show that side more!

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 8th, 2013

And Southern, the one missed free throw was by Sheehey. So his 1/2 shooting on his on free throws and his technical for taunting really aided our victory. Thanks, pal. Keep being a punk.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 8th, 2013

Attaboy, ranger. On that note, I can only assume the Chambana area ran out of liquor and beer last night. There was probably plenty of extra lying around a little over 2.5 hours to the southeast of there…

Lou-a-villini February 8th, 2013

LOL ranger! :)

IlliniAl February 8th, 2013

As this game was winding down with 5 minutes to go I was thinking that even with this loss they had never given up and played so hard. Indiana was just the better team….then, well we know what magic happened. So so satisfying for TG, DJ, BP etc. and sending those candy striped smirkers back home with a big L.

Illinigrad February 9th, 2013

This could be a TOTAL program changing win. Follow the logic: The win could propel us to do well the rest of the season and make the NCAA and a nice run. The win gets more recruits to notice us along with more wins this season. The win helps cement Groce’s status as an up and coming coach and eliminates the Weber after effects on this year’s team. This all leads to better recruits and eventual elite status.

Illinigrad February 9th, 2013

The win also instills a permanent level of confidence among our boys wearing the orange this season regardless if they have a few more loses on the road vs. elite competition. They recover and win more games.

Duce20 February 9th, 2013

I stole this from a guy on the Rivals site, it was ALIONEYE quality writing…

My father, cousin, and I spent the game the way we usually do: commenting on the play, mostly staring a hole in the court, and critiquing/bitching about refs and the play of Brandon Paul. It’s not a unique conversation. There are swear words and over-the-top statements made in battle, but it’s still our blood flowing into the court, through the players, and back into us. Sort of like yelling at your own left foot after you stumble, I suppose. I swear it makes more sense when you’re there.

At the half we couldn’t believe the last foul call on us for Zeller, a Christmas present of two points to cap off an 8-2 foul differential (I think) that felt like 22-2. Down 12, no one on twitter or near us thinks we have a run to take a win, but most agree that we’ve got a couple to make it close. Is IU really shooting that well from 3? Geez, maybe we’re just getting Michigan’ed again. Still, it doesn’t feel like that game. IU isn’t unstoppable and Zeller is mostly a media/ref creation, in my mind. He’s a poor man’s Hansborough except where Psycho-T was 15-20% a ref creation, Zeller feels like he’s 50-55%.

Suddenly we’re running out of time, 6 minutes left, and there isn’t much of a push, but IU can’t get away. They start slowing the game down, and it’s just as our intensity picks up a notch. Even though they get a couple dunks and nice easy ones late in the shot clock, suddenly they are on their heels. The offense isn’t flowing and we’re disrupting what they want to do. Next, Sheehey and Hulls pass up relatively nice three opportunities and the momentum is weird. Like a fumble in an NFL game where the ball is away from every player for a few seconds, the game is laying there, daring us to grab it after a careless drop by IU.

Time becomes funny, and stops following the clock. The seconds are plays now.

Brandon gets fouled on an inbound. Hits both. Tick.
DJ hits a three. Tick.
McLaurin flashes serious court vision again to DJ. Another three. Tick.
Oladipo finishes a nice layup. Tick.
Brandon gets fouled and misses an easy looking finish. Tick.
Brandon banks home a nervous freebie, then nails the second. Tick.
Oladipo dribbles off his leg and DJ breaks to the bucket. Tick.
Oladipo makes a great play to block it. Tick.

There are no timeouts when the ball is inbounded, but it feels like an hour. We’re not whining anymore. The IU fans are silent as we are, bewildered. There is magic in the air. A chance to beat a #1 team with a shot, like the “hit a half-court shot and we’ll pay your tuition” deal. Groce steals a mini-timeout to call a play, and Crean uses it too. The ref hands the orange ball to Brandon and begins to count.


Griffey sees he’s the forgotten man and breaks. Zeller completely biffs the cover and Brandon puts a pass on the money. Tyler pulls the string and I can tell the ball had nearly hit the backboard before the light came on. A winner. A WINNER! My father lets out a yell I haven’t heard in years and my cousin is celebrating like a college student. We’ve become so cynical and jaded, it’s a shock to see it. For my part, I got emotional. I had to fight pretty hard to keep the tears back, but the dam burst a bit. My gf was jumping up and down, elated for a team she had no real connection to before in her life. The magic was back in our building, and it was overwhelming, like eating a Chophouse steak after ten days lost at sea or seeing color for the first time.

So many things happened in the next fifteen minutes. I was back home in AH, we won a great game against a great team (that is almost certainly better than us this year but, you know, SCOREBOARD). The fans who came kept it together and very loud, especially in the last two minutes when IU couldn’t communicate at all on offense and our defense combined with us to hit them in the mouth. It was like having a vital organ returned to you when you didn’t know it was gone, but you’ve been feeling sick for weeks. We needed this as badly as anybody.

The thing that will always stick with these memories is the players in those moments. Joe celebrated by jumping about 5 feet straight up and threw a haymaker at nothing in particular, but that was the normal one. Brandon nearly broke down and eventually found DJ for an embrace that probably unloaded the stress of ages. Tyler was nervous at first, and then so relieved and satisfied it was filmed as an alternate ending to Brian’s Song. They had thought they could do things at Illinois in HS, but finally they DID something.

And it’s all because it matters. It matters that we get big wins and make money and get ranked and all that, but it’s because the players kill themselves for these moments, and the fans can’t sleep after good or bad games, or before a big one. It’s because we watch these games hoping for a miracle, that wisp of a chance that the wonderful will happen, or you’ll see something you’ll never forget. It matters that Tyler came back from basketball purgatory and stepped up after Sheehey stepped over the line. It matters that something switched and he started distrubuting and scoring at all three levels. It matters that that allowed DJ to be himself, a gunner who shouldn’t have to handle and drive constantly, and that he thrived. Tyler, DJ, and Brandon are now legends if only for one night, but that night will live as long as we let it. I have ripped these guys this year and previously, and our marriage is not without issue, but they showed me after the game that they cared as much as I do, and it matters. I should have known all along, but you need to be reminded to be sure sometimes.

It also matters because we’re there. The fans are always there and we’ve been through a ton. It matters because our irrational belief and obsession with this team and sport is one of the highlights of winter every year. It connects my family to all those others that will put on a blaze orange shirt at a moment’s notice, especially those who live outside of the state and are wearing neon renegade apparel while strangers don’t get it. I teared up because every year I tell everyone that we’ve got a chance to be good if a few things happen. I spend so much time hoping for it and invest so much into it that when the slot machine finally says ‘Jackpot’ I have only happiness to give. It matters that it turns galvanized old warriors back into kids. We don’t exchange many high-fives in my family for whatever reason, so anything that breaks that barrier down is worth hanging onto.

Finally, it matters simply to matter. We have trended on Twitter three times in this season, which is a feat for anything or anyone, really. We have a butterface resume in some aspects, but we matter again. We’ve become a microcosm of all sport in that fashion. We might beat anybody, so it’s worthwhile to watch. When you matter, new kids see it and want part of it. JaQuan Lyle knows about this game, where the underdog Illini beat his homestate team this year when he’s likely to make his choice and they are an option. Some other 12-year old danced with his Dad last night in the living room and when he turns out to be 6’7″ with a deadly shot and driving skills, we’ll get a shot. You string these together and you build a legend over time. You build our legend.

I suppose I’m failing to explain all this in words, but I hope you remember last night because it matters. To all of us.

Go Illini.” “