I was in eighth grade when Ohio State guard Matt Sylvester broke my heart.
The University of Illinois was up 64-62 with nine seconds left, moments away from an unbeaten regular season. Unranked Ohio State had the ball coming out of a timeout. In a cruel, prophetic stroke, CBS announcer Gus Johnson said Sylvester was just one of four on the day from behind the three-point line. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.
OSU brought the ball up the court. Standing near the elbow, Sylvester hopped once, twice, cutters slashing past screens in three different directions. He slipped beyond the arc, unguarded, caught the ball and fired. Columbus, Ohio went wild.
Losing in dramatic fashion on national television did not just thwart the Illini’s chance at a perfect season, it stole their momentum a week before the NCAA tournament. They narrowly escaped upsets by 16th-seeded Farleigh Dickinson and third-seeded Arizona before losing to North Carolina in the national championship in a game much closer than the score.
In years since, the Illini have toiled, sometimes even failing to qualify for the tournament. In 2007, capturing perfectly the recruiting woes of head coach Bruce Weber, current NBA MVP Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon both backed out of verbal commitments to Illinois. No knock on Trent Meachem or Demetri McCamey, but starting lineups in the Big Ten must live up to a certain standard to compete, and Illinois’ have not yet.
But that all changed Tuesday night against no. 5 Ohio State when junior guard Brandon Paul had a game for the ages, helping the Illini capture a 79-74 victory.
Paul scored 43 points, the third-best single-game scoring performance in the history of Illinois basketball. He became the first player in 15 seasons to score 43 while attempting fewer than 15 shots, according to ESPN. He was clutch, too.
As the Buckeyes pulled to within one with just under a minute to go, Paul hit his eighth three of the night, and made multiple pressure-packed free throws.
Sophomore Myers Leonard (14 points, 5 rebounds) played neck and neck with Jared Sullinger, arguably the best frontcourt player in the nation. What’s more, the Illini did it with four guards in their starting lineup: Paul, Joseph Bertand, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams (point guard Sam Maniscalco missed the game with an ankle injury).
And it worked.
The unranked Illini improved to 15-3 (4-1 Big Ten) and now find themselves a half game behind no. 7 Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten conference, which boasts four teams in the top-13 of the AP rankings and will almost undoubtedly send six teams to the tournament.
But they have a brutal schedule down the stretch. The Illini play Michigan St. and number thirteen Michigan twice more, and face a tough OSU on the road.
Although it was an encouraging win over the Buckeyes, the Illini relied on a historic night from Paul, who admitted after the game he had considered earlier in the season removing the three-point shot from his game entirely. They cannot possibly count on him to drop 43 again.
Is Illinois for real? With two months until the tournament, they still have a lot to prove. But the important thing is that they have not broken my heart this season–not yet, at least.