INDIANAPOLIS – Illinois junior Jeff Jordan saw the ball bounce free with the Illini ahead by just two points in the closing seconds of Friday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal.
Someone on Illinois needed to grab the ball. Someone needed to get fouled. Someone needed to sink a free throw to put away Wisconsin for good.
Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan, decided that person needed to be him. Following what could be a genetic impulse, Jordan ran down the loose ball, was fouled and gave Illinois a 57-54 lead with 24 seconds by hitting one of two free throws.
Illinois would win 58-54 and advance to the Saturday’s semifinals.
“I wanted to shoot it,” Jordan said. “I wanted to come up and grab the ball once I saw it was loose. I was glad I had a chance to knock it down. It did feel good. I just wanted to make sure we won the game first and foremost. It felt good I got to go in and contribute at the end of the game and make the free throw.”
With his dad in the stands, Jordan knew his dad would be pleased, but he also knew precisely what he would later hear.
“He’s going to yell at me about the second one, but it was good to get one to go down,” Jordan said.
Illinois freshman D.J. Richardson had no doubt about it.
“That’s just confidence,” Richardson said. “As coach [Bruce] Weber stated, we need our upperclassmen to be great. That’s a great moment for an upperclassmen.”
Jordan’s contributions for the Illini have been mostly of a smaller significance throughout his career. He’s usually asked to come off the bench, give starting point guard Demetri McCamey with a breather and provide defensive intensity.
Jordan hadn’t actually been in a game-winning shot situation since his playing days at Loyola in high school. The fact he also hadn’t put up a shot since halftime and had only eight previous free-throw attempts on the season headed into the game didn’t help either.
“It’s hard coming in cold and not being warmed up,” said Jordan, who finished with one point. “I just didn’t want to think about missing it. I just went up there with confidence.”
To further add to Jordan’s stress, the officials delayed his moment as they tried to figure out how much time should be on the clock.
“I went to the line three times and came to the bench,” Jordan said. “It plays mind games. I was just really nervous. … I just told myself, ‘Make it.’”
That he did.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.