Survive and move on.
That’s the mantra of every team still remaining in the NCAA tournament.
And no one said it had to be pretty.
When the ink dried on the final scoresheets Friday, the seventh-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini were the team moving on to the next round in the East Regional portion of our bloodied brackets.
It doesn’t matter that they couldn’t throw it in the ocean, making only three of 22 field goal attempts in the second half. It doesn’t matter that the young Colorado Buffaloes played like gangbusters after a lackluster start.
It doesn’t even matter that Colorado brought nearly two dozen dance girls and a Ralphie mascot who cut a fine rug with the ladies.
All that matters at this time of the year is staying in the tournament.
Illinois 57, Colorado 49.
“This is March Madness, and that stuff happens all the time,” said Illinois guard Brandon Paul, who led the way with 17 points. “At the end of the day, I think that as seniors, we got to find a way to tough it out.”
Illinois led 37-21 at halftime, but left something very valuable in the locker room. Their offense. After Tracy Adams opened the second half with a pair of free throws, the Illini suffered through a drought not unfamiliar with their offense this season. Over the next 19 possessions, Illinois went 0 for 14 from the field with five turnovers. Meanwhile, the Buffs were busy putting a 20-0 run to take a five-point lead midway through the half, thanks in large part to point guard Askia Booker, who knocked down three triples.
The Colorado run coincided with Paul going to the bench with his third foul in the opening seconds of the half. Illinois’ dry spell lasted a stifling 10 minutes and 47 seconds, which is usually enough to spell elimination. But, like Paul said, this is March Madness. Nothing is a given.
The Illini got it together when it mattered most and put together a 16-2 run, helped by a couple of big threes from Paul and D.J. Richardson, to quell the Colorado uprising. That was enough to send the former Big 12 member home for the season.
“We’ve done it the hard way a lot this year,” said Illini coach John Groce. “I’m proud of our guys for their resiliency. In that situation, a lot of guys would crack. I thought our guys continued to show a lot of poise.”
March Madness isn’t about style points. Fans don’t care about prolonged slumps, just as long as their team is still alive in the bracket at game’s end. Just ask the LaSalle Explorers, who went 3 of 18 from the field in the second and still managed to eliminate the Kansas State Wildcats in Kansas City.
Speaking of fans, no school is better represented this weekend than Illinois, and the Illini needed every ounce of energy from their fan base to overcome an arid start to the second half. This game was all about runs. Illinois had a 13-0 spurt to end the first half, then Colorado opened the second half with its surge while Illinois slept. The final run was the one that counted the most and now the Illini fan base is in search of bigger game.
Standing in the way of a berth in the Sweet 16 is second-seeded Miami.
Mike Chan, a local business consultant and Illinois graduate opened up his home for five other Illini fans, including his buddies Kyle Hoskins and Artem Rogachev, who drove in from Dallas for the weekend. The trio of Illini graduates rocked orange T-shirts and ties as part of a full Illinois section that sat behind the team’s bench.
“If we can shoot better than 37 percent, we will beat Miami,” said Chan, who hails from Peoria, Ill., the hometown of guard D.J. Richardson. “We’re going to shoot better, I guarantee it. We’re ready for Miami.”
Since the Illini advanced to the next round, there will be at least one raucous fan base at the Erwin Center Sunday.
“They’re a great fan base,” Paul said. “Orange Crush is always with us. Everywhere we go, we see orange. We’re going to continue to feed off their energy.”
At least for one more game.
Survive and move on.