At this moment, there is a flicker of hope.
Officials gather at the monitor. Had Illinois forward Tyler Griffey's layup come after the buzzer? If it did, it is overtime. If it did not, the Hoosiers will have blown leads as large as 14 to culminate a disastrous final three minutes. The Illini will have — perhaps — a season-saving 74-72 victory.
Indiana will wonder what might have been.
And then …
Freeze this image: Christian Watford stands in unwanted media spotlight, swarmed in a narrow hallway in the bowels of Illinois' Assembly Hall. The results are in — Griffey's basket counted. For the fifth straight week, the nation's No. 1 team has lost after gaining the top spot. Duke did it twice. The same thing happened to Louisville and Michigan.
Now Indiana (20-3) has lost the No. 1 ranking for the second time this season (although it won't become official until next week), duplicating the consequences from its December defeat to Butler.
“It's a tough one,” Watford said. “It's a tough pill to swallow, but we have to learn from it. A loss like this, we can't do anything about it now. Go forward and learn from it. Look at the film and see what we didn't do right. We know we let one get away from us.”
Did they ever.
For 37 minutes, the Hoosiers had positioned themselves to retain out-right Big Ten lead, only to see Illinois score 13 of the game's final 15 points. Now, they are tied with Michigan and Michigan State with 8-2 records. They face a brutal road test Sunday at No. 10 Ohio State, which is coming off a double overtime loss at Michigan.
IU cannot afford to let this linger.
“You just move forward,” Watford said. “If we're the type of team we think we are, we know what we're capable of doing.”
Illinois (16-8, 3-7) had lost six of its last seven games. It had fallen from a top-10 team to one unlikely to make the NCAA tourney. It needed a defining victory.
“It was a great win,” coach John Groce said. “We played with a lot of trust. We were tough and together. We played the game the right way.
“Indiana is a great team. I mean great. We were fortunate, but we're taking it.”
And then …
With 4:21 left Indiana had a 10-point lead. With 2:50 left, it led by eight. Then Illinois guard D.J. Richardson got free for a three-pointer. Forty-six seconds later, he did it again. A minute later, he hit a two-point fade-away jumper to complete a 23-point effort.
The game was tied at 70-70.
IU's Victor Oladipo drove for a layup with 50 seconds left. Illinois guard Brandon Paul tied it 13 seconds later with a pair of free throws.
The Hoosiers had a chance to get the last shot, but Richardson stripped Oladipo of the ball and drove down the court. Oladipo, perhaps the nation's top defensive player, sprinted back and blocked Richardson's shot far into the Assembly Hall stands.
Just nine-tenths of a second remained.
And then …
Illinois had no time outs left, which meant there was no way Groce could devise a play. What it did have, he said, was an in-bounds play it had run before. Paul would in-bounds the ball.
“We couldn't draw it up,” Groce said, “so we went with one I felt our guys knew well. We didn't try to do something out of character. Brandon is our best in-bounder. A good in-bounder has to have the guts of burglar. He let it develop.”
What developed was Griffey made a cut to the basket and no Hoosier went with him. The replays seemed to indicate that Cody Zeller was to blame, but Watford said the mix-up was between he and point guard Yogi Ferrell.
Regardless of fault, when Griffey cut to the basket, no one was within 10 feet of him. Paul passed him the ball. He scored just ahead of the buzzer.
“We ran a standard out of bounds play,” Griffey said. “I made a curl cut, and left two guys behind me. Brandon made a heck of a pass.
“It was part of a read. Zeller and Watford were standing there and I went through them. They both stayed there.”
Added Crean: “It was a broken play. We didn't want to give them a chance to set up and win the game on a lob. They were out of timeouts. We had two. We didn't communicate well. We didn't make a switch at the end.”
So the Hoosiers must live with regret. They shot 50 percent from the field, won the rebound battle 30-26 and made 13-of-14 free throws. But their 14 turnovers produced 28 points. That, Crean said, was the difference.
“The turnovers we were making, there's no defense.
“Our guys were ready. They were prepared. They respected Illinois. There was no overlooking them. We turned the ball over and we didn't stay committed to what we had to do at the end of the game.”
It cost them a game and, perhaps, a lot more.
Up nextTipoff: Indiana at Ohio State, 1 p.m. Sunday
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