Paul finds winning touch at crucial moment

Brandon Paul was the only Illini player to have his offensive game clicking Thursday. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Jeff Pagliocca turned to his right midway through the second half of Thursday's Big Ten tournament game between Illinois and Minnesota and made a comment to Brandon Paul's father, Cliff Sr., while they were seated five rows behind the Illini's bench at the United Center.

"We'll see if the kid wants to be a winner today," said Pagliocca, who trains Paul in the offseason.

Paul had been aggressive and knocked down shots throughout the first half to build the Illini a nine-point lead, but Minnesota pushed back to begin the second half, and Paul's presence shrunk resulting in the Illini relinquishing their advantage. He had gone eight-plus minutes without a basket since scoring at 17:20 of the second half.

With 8:56 left in the game, Paul reappeared. He hit a jumper. Three Illini possessions later, he drove to the basket strong, scored while being fouled and sank the free throw. He drained a 3-pointer on the following possession.

And with the game on the line, Paul answered Pagliocca's question. Paul would later say he was being selfish for the sake of the team.

With 14.6 seconds remaining and the game tied at 49-49, Paul could see his coaches debating whether to call a timeout after the Illini forced Minnesota into a turnover. Paul motioned emphatically for an isolation play and was granted it.

Paul dribbled up court with Minnesota's Austin Hollins defending him. Paul dribbled between his legs a few times at the top of the key and with about five seconds he made his move. He hesitated and crossed hard to his left hand at the 3-point line, creating a few feet between him and Hollins, dribbled once more going forward, stopped, leaped, faded toward his own bench and released a high-arching shot from his right hand.

The ball fell through the net a moment before the buzzer sounded, and the Illini won 51-49 to advance to tournament quarterfinals to face Indiana.

"At the end of the day, I didn't want to lose the game, and I don't want to put anybody else in the situation unless I had to, to try to make the last shot," Paul said. "I don't want anyone to feel down on themselves. I rather that onus be on me."

Paul called the shot the biggest of his career, but it also may have been the biggest game of his career. He's put up bigger numbers and had more all-around performances in his four years at Illinois, but he's rarely shined when it's come to postseason basketball.

Paul had scored in double figures just once in his first nine previous postseason games. He was held to under 10 points in two NCAA tournament games, three NIT games and three of his four first Big Ten games. His highest scoring output was 10 points in loss to Michigan as a sophomore. Last season, he was of 2-of-11 with four points in Illinois' first-round Big Ten tournament exit against Iowa.

Paul delivered Thursday with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and 4-of-8 from 3-point range. He also had five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

What made Paul's performance even more clutch was the fact no one else seemed able to get it going offensively for the Illini. The rest of the team shot 8-of-40 from the field and 2-of-17 from 3, and Paul was the only player with more than six points.

"Today, we didn't have a lot going on offense, which is what I thought was more impressive about his offense," Illinois coach John Groce said. "He was able to make plays and be efficient as he was. Because offensively a lot of the things we were running in the second half, I thought Minnesota defended them really well."

Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson, who made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 49 with 44 seconds left, knew Paul wasn't going to let his team down.

"I had seen that look in his eye," Richardson said. "He was the only guy in double figures, the only guy making shots for us today. He played big for us. We need for him to do that rest of the season for us to be successful."

For at least Thursday, Paul proved he wanted to be a winner.