When Brandon Paul woke up from his pregame nap on Tuesday afternoon, the words ‘Be special’ appeared on his phone. It was a text message from Coach Bruce Weber, who, like everyone else watching, had no idea how special he would be on a historic night at the Assembly Hall.
With ESPN and the #5 ranked Buckeyes in the building, in addition to former Illini coach Lou Henson and numerous former players, Paul was the main attraction. The opening act was a little shaky for the junior guard, four turnovers and no points through the first 6:31of the game, but his confidence never wavered. The Illini are happy it did not because what followed was arguably the best single game performance in Illini history.
Paul was unstoppable, shooting 11-15 from the field, 8-10 from 3-point range and 13-15 from the free throw line, totaling 43 points. His 28 2nd half points alone were more than any Illini had scored in a game all season. His points came in bunches and more importantly, they came when it mattered most, as Paul scored his team’s final 15 points in the last 2:43 of the game, as the Illini edged out the Buckeyes 79-74.
Paul’s final field goal came after a Bruce Weber timeout with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock; the Illini were up 71-70 with 45 seconds to play. Everyone in the building knew who the ball was going to, including Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who had his hand right in Paul’s face as he fired up a contested 3-pointer in front of the Illini bench. As the ball sailed through the net and cheers erupted from the stands, it was evident nothing was going to stop Paul that night.
Paul also added 8 rebounds and 4 blocks, becoming only the 3rd player in the NCAA through the past 10 years to have at least 43 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in a single game. His 43 points ranked 3rd in school history, behind Dave Downey’s 53 at Indiana in 1963 and Andy Kaufmann’s 46 versus Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990.
Paul’s efficiency in scoring 43 points is unparalleled in comparison to anything college basketball has seen of late. In fact, Paul was the first player in the last 16 seasons to score 43 points while taking 15 shots or less.
Paul’s performance was the best the Assembly Hall had seen since Dee Brown’s 34 point outing against Michigan State in January of 2006. However, given the magnitude of the upset and Paul’s overall stat line, it can be said the Illini have never seen such a single game feat. Former Illini great Stephen Bardo agreed with this assessment, telling the News-Gazette, “it was the best (performance) I’ve ever seen here.”
Nearly everyone watching Tuesday’s game would probably agree. It was a signature win for the Illini and a performance from Paul that has the sound of cheers from Illini fans still echoing off the walls of Assembly Hall.