The No. 2 Miami Hurricanes beat the No. 7 Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday night using some late-game heroics from star Shane Larkin, along with some clutch overall free-throw shooting, to secure a 63-59 victory.
Miami got off to a fast start, taking advantage of some cold Illinois shooting to post a 7-2 lead. But the tide started to turn when Illini forward Tyler Griffey entered the game. He nailed three quick three-pointers that got his team's offense going in a much-needed way.
But the Illini's momentum was short-lived. After taking an 18-14 lead, they allowed nine consecutive Miami points, the first five coming from streaky reserve Rion Brown, the next four off the hands of 24-year-old Kenny Kadji. The two teams essentially traded blows from there until the end of the half, Miami leading 29-26 at intermission.
The game continued to go back and forth as the second half opened. Illinois fought back to take a brief lead before it quickly relinquished it to Miami. Durand Scott scored his first basket, a vicious dunk, with 10:09 to go, helping to incite a 10-2 run that extended the lead to 46-39.
But the Illini refused to go down without a fight. A couple of Brandon Paul three-pointers helped cut the deficit to reasonable proportions, and a Tracy Abrams layup tied the game at 52 with under four minutes remaining. Not too far after, an acrobatic dunk by Paul put the Illini back up, 54-52, and a subsequent charge by Miami put the ball (and the momentum) squarely back in their hands.
Scott tied things up with a put-back layup not too much later, and the game remained tied until Abrams went to the line and hit a free throw with 1:24. But Larkin would have none of that, crossing into a step-back and nailing a three on the other end.
Trailing 57-55, Illinois got the ball back with 1:03 on the clock. But D.J. Richardson air-balled a three, and though the ball clearly went off of Miami, the refs gave the ball back to the Hurricanes.
Durand Scott knocked down two free throws for Miami, and then Nnanna Egwu, a 62 percent foul shooter, went to the line for Illinois. He surprisingly knocked in both, pulling the Illini within two with 22.3 on the clock.
Like Scott before him, Larkin iced two free throws at the line, extending the lead back to four points. Paul missed on the other end, but it was tipped in for two by Egwu.
The Illini then fouled Brown, a 73.3 percent foul shooter. He calmly stepped to the line and knocked in a pair, extending the lead once again to four with 7.7 seconds remaining. Paul missed on the other end, and that was all she wrote. Miami: 63. Illinois: 59.
Much will be written about the horrid (and it was horrid) out-of-bounds call at the end of the game and whether or not replay decided the outcome.
But the 'Canes' late-game free-throw shooting might have been the most important factor. They hit six huge free throws down the stretch that never allowed Illinois a chance to tie or pull ahead.
Larkin, Scott and Kadji, Miami's three best players, all struggled from the field. They were saved by streaky reserve Brown, who scored 21 points off the bench. He also hit the final two free throws with under 10 seconds, which essentially ended the game.
For Illinois, the loss is painful, but it showed impressively as a seven seed against a great opponent. Egwu and Griffey had particularly strong showings, scoring 12 points apiece, while Brandon Paul had 18.
Gawker editor, Deadspin founder and noted fan of all things Illinois, Will Leitch, didn't have a problem with his alma mater's three-point halftime deficit:
Doing backflips about it. RT @illinoisloyalty Down 3. We'll take it!— Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) March 25, 2013
Later, halfway through the second half, he heaped even more praise on his team, lauding their effort in spite of the eventual outcome:
Don't know if Illini are gonna win, but love everything about how they're playing. Great gameplan, playing so hard. Giddy no matter what.— Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) March 25, 2013
With all eyes turned on the Miami-Illinois contest, The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre implored star player Larkin to seize the big stage:
Ok Shane Larkin - 10 mins left, Duke's at halftime, no other games on. Show the country what they've been missing. #Kidsisnice— Jason McIntyre (@TheBigLead) March 25, 2013
CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis didn't quite get the Canes' small lead, especially given their ability to keep Illinois off the stripe:
With 10:38 to play Illinois has yet to attempt a free throw. Still lead the Canes by 1.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 25, 2013
USA Today's Dan Wolken was impressed by Brandon Paul's lead-assuming dunk, likening him to tournament darlings—and notorious high-flyers—Florida Gulf Coast:
Brandon Paul should be playing for Florida Gulf Coast— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 25, 2013
CBS Sports' Seth Davis had among the wisest words following the refs' blown out of bounds call:
Confusion on the out of bounds. This is why refs should be able to go to the monitor in last 2 mins. Clearly out on Kadji.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 25, 2013
ESPN's Big Ten bloggers, Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett, also had something to say about the state of replay in college basketball:
Lot of problems with college football replay, but it's way better than the limited way replay is used in college hoops.— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) March 25, 2013
Finally, back to Leitch, who, despite being heartbroken by his team's loss, tried to remain positive in the face of referee controversy:
Unbelievable game, one I was proud to watch, and I'm doing my ABSOLUTE BEST to ignore the horrific call so I can feel positive about it all.— Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) March 25, 2013